RENO — A federal judge has given Northern Nevada’s largest public transit system the green light to begin recording audio along with video surveillance on city buses despite objections from the bus drivers’ union that it’s an illegal invasion of privacy.
U.S. District Judge Miranda Du said in a ruling this week neither the drivers nor their passengers have a right to privacy because conversations on public buses are not private.
Teamers Local 533, which has been fighting the move in Reno for more than three years, intends to appeal Du’s decision to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.
“She’s made a number of assumptions on many levels that we respectfully disagree with,” Reno lawyer Michael Langton said Friday. In addition to violating collective bargaining laws, he said the audio recordings amount to surreptitious eavesdropping.
Du said there’s nothing clandestine about it because signs onboard warn riders — in both English and Spanish — that buses may be equipped with audio and video surveillance.
Washoe County’s Regional Transportation Commission maintains it’s not even required to post the warnings. It says the surveillance system with a microphone at the front near the fare box has been used for years in a number of places, including New Jersey, Maryland, Oregon and California.
“Persons engaging in a conversation loud enough to be heard in the area of the fare box should have no expectations of private conversation,” commission lawyer Chris Wicker wrote in recent court filings. “Moreover there is no reasonable expectation of privacy regarding conversations knowingly made in public.”
The fact some passengers whisper on buses “in order to conceal the content of their conversations” is evidence they’re aware they could be monitored, Wicker said. “Whispering would not be required in a private space, like one’s home, where there are reasonable expectations of privacy.”
Langton said that argument suggests no one can have private conversations in public. He said it’s wrong to assume conversations are not protected from an invasion of privacy “simply because they may occur on a bus.”
Du agreed with the county that the issue isn’t a matter of collective bargaining partly because the surveillance system the union agreed to under its last labor contract was always equipped with the microphones that previously hadn’t been activated.
The county notified the union in March 2014 it intended to start using them to improve safety and aid in accident investigations. But it postponed flipping the switch when the union objected. Union leaders fear the real purpose of the recordings is to use them in disciplinary actions.
Concerned about the threat of criminal penalties if the union prevailed before the National Labor Relations Board, the county sought a declaratory order endorsing its interpretation of the law. Dallas-based MV Transportation operates the buses under a contract with the county.
“Now that we have the judgment, MV Transportation has been requested to implement the audio function,” Wicker said Friday.
In her ruling Monday, Du agreed with the Regional Transportation Commission that the situation was covered by a 1986 Nevada attorney general’s opinion that concluded monitoring private conversations of prisoners was not surreptitious because inmates didn’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy “when notice of monitoring is clearly posted, or the monitoring equipment is in plain view.”
“Similar to the monitoring of prisoners, the notices on RTC buses, which are at the front of the bus in plain view, demonstrates that the use of the audio portion of the (surveillance system) is not surreptitious,” Du wrote.