Sakinah Aaron was walking into the bus area at the Wheaton Metro station several weeks ago, talking loudly on her Motorola cell phone. A little too loudly for Officer George Saoutis of the Metro Transit Police.
The police officer told Aaron, who is five months pregnant, to lower her voice. She told the officer he had no right to tell her how to speak into her cell phone.
Their verbal dispute quickly escalated, and Saoutis grabbed Aaron by the arm and pushed her to the ground. He handcuffed the 23-year-old woman, called for backup and took her to a cell where she was held for three hours before being released to her aunt. She was charged with two misdemeanors: "disorderly manner that disturbed the public peace" and resisting arrest.
Those are the facts on which both sides agree.
They interpret the events of Sept. 9 very differently.
Transit Police and some Metro officials say Saoutis was protecting the peace by removing a woman who had overstepped the boundaries of civil behavior because she was loudly cursing into her phone.
They say that cell phones have become just another instrument of loutish behavior in the public space and that they are fighting a dramatic deterioration of manners in the transit system.
"We need better enforcement to allow people to know we are serious and want to maintain the high-quality level of the system," said Robert J. Smith, chairman of the Metro board, adding that "ranting youth" have become a plague on the subway. "This isn't Montana. We live in a very dense region, and people are on top of each other all the time."
Smith, who refuses to carry a cell phone, said he thinks Metro riders need to use the devices with care. "We wouldn't allow someone to come into the U.S. Capitol Rotunda and shout obscenities into a cell phone," he said.
But Aaron and some defenders of free speech say the Transit Police are the ones who overstepped boundaries by making a crime out of conversation and pushing a pregnant woman to her knees. The incident took place out of doors and not in the confines of a rail car or bus, they note.
And they point to a string of other incidents, including the July arrest of a 45-year-old woman for chewing a PayDay candy bar and the 2000 arrest of a 12-year-old girl for eating a french fry, that are earning the Transit Police a national reputation as an agency itching to lock up riders.
"Technically, the police officer is right, but the result is wrong," said D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who represents the city on the Metro board. "How do we prevent minor transgressions escalating into major problems? It's not what any of us want. We don't want pregnant women booked for loud cell phone conversations. We don't want 12-year-old girls in handcuffs for eating a single french fry. Whether it's training or guidance to our officers, we have to do something."
Johnny Barnes, executive director of the Washington area chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, called Aaron's arrest "troubling."
"There seems to be an unusual attention paid to activities of patrons," Barnes said. "One should be able to ride the Metro and exercise a range of rights without fear of intervention from Metro police."
Aaron, who lives in Silver Spring and works as a clerk at the Food and Drug Administration, said she was talking to her fiance on her cell phone as she walked toward the bus bay about 4:45 p.m. Sept. 9 to catch the Route C4 Metrobus.
"Our phone conversation had ended," she said. "I'm walking down the stairs and the transit cop said, 'You have to lower your voice, ma'am.' I said, 'You can't tell me how loud I can talk.' He said, 'I can arrest you,' and he grabbed my arm. I said, 'What are you doing? I'm pregnant! Oh, so you want to flex some muscle today?' He grabbed my hand, and we struggled."
Aaron acknowledged that she was loud on the phone but said she wasn't cursing and lobbed a profanity only after Saoutis grabbed her.
After her release that night, Aaron went to Holy Cross Hospital and was treated in the emergency room for a bruise she said was a result of Saoutis's pushing her to the ground and placing his knee on her upper back.
Saoutis, who is about to complete his first year on the job with the Transit Police, was not available for an interview yesterday, according to Deputy Chief Tim Gronau.
Gronau said his officer properly enforced the law and arrested Aaron because it was clear she wasn't taking his warning seriously.
"We're not either pro or negative cell phones," he said. "The issue is [that] the volume of her conversation, coupled with the language, is not conducive to socially accepted standards of behavior."