StreetWatch v. National Railroad Passenger Corp. (Amtrak) Historic Case

At a Glance

Date Filed: 

June 1994

Case Description 

StreetWatch v. National Railroad Passenger Corp. is a case which charged Amtrak police with illegally ejecting, harassing, and arresting homeless people.

In June 1994, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) filed a federal lawsuit against the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, or Amtrak, on behalf of 12 homeless people and several members of StreetWatch, a project of the Coalition for the Homeless. The suit sought a permanent injunction against Amtrak police who regularly ejected people they considered “undesirable,” and furthermore, illegally harassed, arrested, and, on some occasions, brutalized them.

A permanent injunction issued in March 1996 made lasting a series of temporary restrictions on police treatment of the homeless in New York City’s Penn Station.

The injunction, issued by Judge Constance Baker Motley, one of the first Black women federal justices, prohibits police from ejecting or arresting people in the public areas “in the absence of probable cause that such persons have committed or are committing either a crime” or an identifiable violation of rules promulgated by the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak).

The injunction warns Amtrak police not to “selectively force persons to leave or move from one place to another based upon a discriminatory reason” or use the amount of time a person spends in Penn Station to be the basis for arrest or ejection. The injunction also prohibits Amtrak police from harassing members of the public who observe the actions of Amtrak police—this relief was included because two members of StreetWatch were arrested and charged with criminal trespass in 1994 when they observed police harassment of homeless persons.

However, the injunction does not prohibit Amtrak police from ejected or arresting people who are lying on the floor in Penn Station, sitting without a ticket in areas clearly marked as reserved for ticketed passengers, or loitering in private restaurants or other private businesses within Penn Station.

Judge Motley’s opinion granting the preliminary injunction included a strongly-worded refusal to “concur in [Amtrak’s] labeling of the homeless as a criminal class or give weight to a perceived public interest in avoiding the aesthetic discomfort of being reminded on a daily basis that many of our fellow citizens are forced to live in abject and degrading poverty.”

Along with the injunction, a financial settlement provided the homeless defendants with $5,000 to $7,000 each.