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BART cops handcuffed Black rider who charged his phone on the train—even though it’s legal

A person in a mask and beanie stands in a subway station with a blurry train in the background.
James Robinson was cited by BART police for disobeying an officer after he used an outlet on the train to charge his phone. | Source: Joel Umanzor/The Standard

James Robinson had already boarded a BART train at San Francisco’s Civic Center Station around 7 a.m. on March 8, en route to a Walmart in the East Bay, when he realized his phone needed charging.

Robinson, a Black man who uses public transit as his main means of travel, saw an open power outlet as he entered the first train car near the bike staging area and plugged in his charging cord, he told The Standard.

When the train reached Lake Merritt Station, two BART police officers boarded, approached Robinson and told him what he was doing was illegal.

In fact, it's not—but a few minutes later, Robinson found himself in handcuffs anyway.

"I feel like this is another case of a person being of color in America but more specifically on the BART system," Robinson said.

In a video recording of his interaction with officers reviewed by The Standard, Robinson points out that the signage around the exposed electrical outlet doesn’t explicitly specify that riders are prohibited from using it. Robinson goes on to tell officers they have “no authority” to tell him he can’t use the outlet.

An argument ensued, the recording shows. After refusing to unplug, Robinson was removed from the train at the next stop, Fruitvale Station, and detained, according to Robinson and BART.

“They physically pulled me off because I wasn’t going to go anywhere,” Robinson said. “I started recording during the interaction because I said, ‘Wait a minute. This can’t be real.’”

According to a BART spokesperson and a photo reviewed by The Standard, notices by exposed electrical outlets read, "Warning, not rated for personal use. May damage electrical devices. By using this outlet, the user assumes the risk of damage to any attached device and BART shall not be liable.”

A sign on an electrical outlet warns users to tap into it at their own risk.
A sign posted on an electrical outlet inside a BART train warns that riders who use it do so at their own risk. | Source: Courtesy James Robinson

After all three leave the train, the BART officer tells Robinson that by using the train’s outlet, he was violating California Penal Code 498, which says it’s illegal to obtain utility services without paying in full. At the end of the recording, an officer appears to place Robinson’s hands behind his back, as if to handcuff him.

Robinson’s citation, however, only says he is being cited for violating Penal Code 148 (a) (1), for resisting, obstructing or delaying a peace officer.

"I was being threatened with being transported to Santa Rita Jail," he said. "They went through all my pockets, and I was Mirandized."

Two police officers speak to a rider on public transit.
Two BART police officers escort Robinson off a train after he charged his phone using an electrical outlet inside the train car. | Source: Courtesy James Robinson

Robinson said he was held for 30 minutes before he was cited and released. The charge carries a maximum of a $1,000 fine and/or one year in jail. The Alameda County District Attorney’s Office did not respond to The Standard’s questions about whether it plans to file charges against Robinson. He said he plans to fight the citation during a court date in April.

Lateefah Simon, a member of BART’s Board of Directors, said she was aware of the incident but declined to comment on what occurred or whether officers properly cited Robinson.

Simon said BART engineers have told her that the voltage running through the outlets is unregulated, making them unsafe to plug into.

“I was told it is extremely dangerous,” she said. “I’m glad this gentleman walked away unharmed.”

She acknowledged that the wording on the labels should be more clear.

“They’re not supposed to be used by passengers,” Simon said. “They should be labeled properly. We want to be clear about the risk.”

A person adjusts their mask in a station near a "BART Entrance" sign. Another individual with a bicycle is in the background.
Robinson said he was held by BART police for 30 minutes before he was cited for resisting, obstructing or delaying a peace officer and released. He could face a fine of up to $1,000 if charged. | Source: Joel Umanzor/The Standard

BART Board President Bevan Dufty did not respond to requests for comment by publication time.

Russell Bloom, an independent police auditor at BART, said the agency’s internal affairs unit will investigate whether the citation was properly issued and that his office will monitor the investigation. 

Bloom said an important part of the investigation will be to look at the language of the warning near the electrical outlet and whether officers can say specifically why they believed Robinson was committing a crime.

“[The Office of the Independent Police Auditor] can and will elect to conduct an independent investigation should I become concerned that the [internal affairs] investigative process is in any way deficient,” Bloom said in an email.

This is not the first time BART officers detained someone for mundane behavior. In 2019, BART police detained a man for eating a breakfast sandwich on a Pleasant Hill Station platform.

BART spokesperson Alicia Trost told The Standard that Robinson was detained because he was “uncooperative and ignored repeated requests from the officer to unplug the cellphone.”

Trost added that excessive and frequent vandalism of power outlet covers has led BART to start removing the panels from outlets. 

“The outlets experience significant surges in voltage when the train is in service,” Trost said. “The outlets are for industrial use by our cleaning and maintenance crews when the car is not in service and has a continuous supply of electricity. This is why they have historically been covered by locked panels.”

Only a “small number” of trains have exposed electrical outlets, Trost said.

Be that as it may, Robinson believes he was within his rights.

"There's no law in the books about rules or the outlets anywhere," he said. "There’s nothing wrong with a passenger using the receptacle to charge a cellphone."

Joel Umanzor can be reached at
Garrett Leahy can be reached at