A public transit fare violation consists of traveling on a public transit vehicle without paying the fare. This usually involves boarding the transit vehicle without having paid for the required ticket.

The laws that apply to public transportation authorities are usually established by city, county or, sometimes, state agencies. Basically all of them make it a crime to ride a bus, train, tram or other form of public transportation without paying the required fare. Public transit fare violations are a common problem in many parts of the world.

Most cities have policies allowing fare inspectors or transit police to ride public transit, so they can identify fare violators and cite those who have not paid the fare. Transit police are also authorized to ticket or arrest those who commit other crimes against public order while riding or using public transportation, e.g. eating or drinking on public transportation when it is forbidden by law.

Regulating conduct on public transportation is mostly a matter for cities and counties. Fare evasion and fare fraud are crimes in most jurisdictions. There are several ways in which people enter public transit without paying, including:

  • Turnstile jumping: This is the act of jumping over turnstiles which mark the entryway into a subway system and sometimes serve to collect the fare or ticket;
  • Ticket Fraud: Adults traveling on cheaper tickets issued for children or seniors. Using discounted tickets or free passes unlawfully, e.g. if they were not legally issued to the person trying to sue them, can be another form of ticket fraud;
  • Train surfing: Train surfing (also known as train hopping or train hitching) is the act of riding on the outside of a moving train, tram or other rail transport. In some countries, the term train hopping is used synonymously with freight hopping, which means riding on the outside of a freight train. Train surfing can be done on any kind of train.

What Are Some Other Transit Crimes?

Riders may also be fined or cited for other offenses, for example, the following:

  • Providing a fare inspector with false information;
  • Littering on public transportation;
  • Defacing equipment or write graffiti on train surfaces;
  • Illegally selling or transferring transit passes.

Many states also consider it illegal for a bus driver or transit operator to allow passengers to board public transit without collecting fares from them. An operator who fails to collect fares may be penalized by being placed on probation in their job or suspension from the job, or even termination of their employment as an operator.

Of course, committing any crime on a transit vehicle, bus, subway or tram, is every bit as much of a crime as it would be if committed somewhere else. So robbery, theft, assault and battery are still crimes if committed in a transit vehicle, as are scores of other misdemeanors and felonies.

What Are the Penalties for Public Transit Violations?

The penalties for public transit violations vary greatly depending on the city or county that has authority over the public transit system.

Bus fare and other transit violations often result in:

  • Fines: Fines from $100 to $500 can be imposed;
  • Citations; A person might get a citation or ticket;
  • A Criminal Record: In some jurisdictions, riding public transit without paying the fare is a misdemeanor crime and conviction would go on a person’s criminal record;
  • Probation: Depending the circumstances and whether a particular offense is a second or higher offense, a person might be put on probation;
  • Confinement in Jail: The term of confinement would probably not be more than 10 days;
  • Civil Penalties: In many localities, the offense would be considered a civil penalty and not a crime and it would be punished by collection of a fine only. The offense would not go on a person’s criminal record.

In some localities, prosecutors choose not to prosecute turnstile jumping at all, so there is no penalty, although the law making it a misdemeanor criminal offense remains on the books. The fine in New York is $100. In 2018, the then-District Attorney for Manhattan in New York City, decided not to prosecute most cases of turnstile jumping. It was announced that the District Attorney would only prosecute people who were on a list of known “public safety risks.”

A few years later, the then-Governor of New York led efforts to increase enforcement of public transit fare laws, increasing the number of police officers in the New York City subway system. While jumping a turnstile is still technically a criminal offense in New York City’s public transit system, the penalties are relatively light. The offense is essentially the same as a parking ticket, but a conviction can be appealed in order to try to avoid paying the fine.

In San Francisco’s Municipal Transit Authority, conviction of fare evasion leads to a fine of $125. Additional fees can mount up in addition to the basic fine. If a person does not pay the fine by the due date, a delinquent citation penalty of $38 is added to the basic fine. So it is important to either pay the fine or contest it promptly in order to avoid the possibility of fines adding up.

So, it can be difficult to say what the penalties are for public transit violations. Generally, fare evasion is punished by imposition of a fine. The issue can be complicated by temporary political measures which either promote enforcement for a period of time or eliminate it entirely for a while.

One important thing to remember is that if a person is cited or arrested and given a court hearing, it is best not to simply ignore it, but to respond right away. The better choice is to either pay the fine immediately or consult an experienced criminal defense lawyer to contest the charge.

Are There Countermeasures in Place to Prevent Public Transit Violations?

One of the main issues with public fare transit violations arises when police and public transit officials are not able to catch all perpetrators in the act. There is not enough manpower. So authorities have developed several other countermeasures to fight fare violations including:

  • Panic Bars: Panic bars on emergency exit doors make an alarm go off when the door is opened. This prevents fare evaders from entering through the gates when exiting passengers open doors;
  • Closed Circuit Television: Closed circuit television (CCTV) monitoring is used by many public transport agencies to fight vandalism and other offenses against public order CCTV systems are able to discriminate the scenes of suspicious behavior to discriminate them from all the other screens. This then enables automatic alerting. They also improve the possibilities of identifying perpetrators;
  • Civil and Criminal Penalties: In some jurisdictions, fare evasion is a misdemeanor criminal offense. Some perpetrators may eventually be incarcerated for repeat offenses. Usually however, a first offense cannot lead to jail time. In some places, its not a crime. It is only a civil offense, so no jail time is possible;
  • Ticket Barriers: Ticket barriers stand at the entrance to most public transit stations to obstruct access. Ticket barriers require travelers to show their tickets or passes to move through the barrier. They prevent violators from entering the transit system;
  • Ticket Inspectors: Ticket inspectors manually inspect tickets and passes to ensure that there are no violators using the system;
  • Transit Agency Guards and Officers: The presence of guards in uniforms and/or police officers can deter criminal activity.

Do I Need a Lawyer for My Public Transit Violation?

In some places, a conviction for fare violation can end up on your otherwise clear criminal record. If you are charged with a fare or transit violation, consulting with an experienced criminal defense attorney can help you determine the possible consequences and your best options going forward.