Class Action Exposes NYC TLC’s Abusive Undercover Street Hail Stings that Target People of Color at NYC Airports
For Immediate Release
NEW YORK, January 5, 2023 – Today, four New York City residents filed a federal class action lawsuit exposing the New York City Taxi & Limousine Commission (TLC)’s practice of targeting thousands of people of color in undercover sting operations to pad its coffers. The lawsuit was filed by Mobilization for Justice, Gupta Wessler PLLC, and Pollock Cohen LLP on behalf of four people of color who were dropping off family members or rideshare passengers at JFK or LaGuardia Airport.
The plaintiffs allege that they were targeted by undercover TLC officers who aggressively solicited rides for money by appearing to be desperate travelers in need of rides from the airport. These TLC officers then issued them TLC summonses for allegedly violating City law prohibiting unlicensed street hails, even when plaintiffs repeatedly declined to give a ride to the officer or accept any money. These street hail law violations carry a minimum penalty of $1,500. Based on the TLC’s own data, the City has collected millions of dollars from drivers the TLC has targeted in these sting operations.
The lawsuit, filed today in Brooklyn federal court, alleges that these punitive civil penalties violate the United States Constitution’s prohibition on excessive fines and severely impact thousands of drivers of color. The suit seeks to certify a class of all people who were targeted in these sting operations and who, since 2020, either paid the full penalty or settled with the TLC for a reduced amount. The lawsuit alleges that TLC officers routinely use tactics to manufacture violations of the City street hail law, including by begging and badgering drivers to give them rides and appealing to drivers’ sympathy for members of similar immigrant or ethnic communities.
Stanford Miller, one of the lead plaintiffs and a resident of Queens, stated, “I had just dropped off two family members at JFK Airport when an older woman I had never seen before, who was struggling with her luggage, approached me and begged me for a ride back to where I was going in Queens. I felt compassion for her and agreed to drive her since I was heading back there anyway. Although I never agreed to accept any money to drive this woman—who I later learned was an undercover TLC officer—I received a summons claiming I did agree to drive her for money and ordering me to pay the TLC the unfair amount of $1,500.”
As the lawsuit explains, in 2012, New York City increased the penalty for violating the street hail law to a minimum of $1,500 to deter human trafficking and driving without insurance. Neither of these goals is served by undercover TLC officers targeting drivers who have simply dropped off friends or family at the airport and lack any predisposition to engage in a street hail without the proper TLC license. The lawsuit alleges that the people targeted by the TLC in these undercover sting operations are primarily people of color, immigrants, and/or non-English speaking, and that the TLC’s imposition of a $1,500 civil penalty, after entrapping these drivers, violates the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Belinda Luu, Senior Staff Attorney at Mobilization for Justice, said, “The Eighth Amendment is a critical tool for holding city and state governments accountable for using excessive civil fines to raise revenue on the backs of residents who are least able to pay. The TLC needs to end these undercover operations targeting drivers of color who are simply helping family and friends or earning an honest living dropping off rideshare passengers.”
Peter Romer-Friedman, a Principal of Gupta Wessler PLLC, said, “It’s outrageous that for years the City has targeted ordinary New Yorkers with sting operations to manufacture violations of this street hail law and slap them with $1,500 fines. This unconstitutional and draconian policy was created long before Mayor Adams took office. But we hope and trust that the Adams Administration will end this policy now.”
Christopher K. Leung, a Partner at Pollock Cohen LLP, said, “The TLCs undercover operations are unconstitutional, and aimed at not only our most vulnerable communities, but also the simple kindness of ordinary New Yorkers. It’s shameful, excessive, and must be stopped.”
The lawsuit is Miller v. City of New York, No. 23-cv-0065, in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York. Read the complaint here: http://mobilizationforjustice.org/wp-content/uploads/TLC-Class-Action-Complaint-Miller-v-City-of-New-York-23-cv-00065.pdf.
Gupta Wessler PLLC is a national appellate, constitutional, and complex litigation boutique. We litigate high-stakes cases in the U.S. Supreme Court and courts across the country, including in the areas of civil rights and consumer protection. Through all of our efforts, we aim to help shape the law in ways that enhance justice and improve people’s lives. The firm has offices in Washington, DC, Boston, and San Francisco.
Mobilization for Justice is a civil nonprofit legal services organization with offices in Manhattan and the Bronx whose mission is to achieve justice for all. MFJ prioritizes the needs of people who are low-income, disenfranchised, or have disabilities as they struggle to overcome the effects of social injustice and systemic racism. MFJ provides the highest-quality free, direct civil legal assistance, conducts community education, and builds partnerships, engages in policy advocacy, and brings impact litigation, with a focus on four key areas: Housing, Economic Justice, Disability and Aging Rights, and Children’s Rights. MFJ also promotes diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace, and understands the need to eliminate all racial disparities to achieve justice for all.
Pollock Cohen LLP is a public impact, complex litigation boutique. With offices in New York, San Francisco, and Philadelphia, we protect consumers, whistleblowers, and the public health through our high impact work.