Immigrant Drivers Fined by New York TLC and Police in Sting OperationsDocumented

Immigrant Drivers Fined by New York TLC and Police in Sting OperationsDocumented

It was an unseasonably mild August day in 2021 when Jamaican-American immigrant Stanford Miller, 49, who was dropping off relatives at JFK Airport, was approached by an elderly woman asking for a ride. Miller was not a taxi driver, but a construction worker on his way to work.

“I felt compassion for him and agreed to drive him as I was going back there anyway,” he said.

The woman was an undercover officer of the New York TLC (Taxi and Limousine Commission). Shortly after Miller picked up the woman, he was forced to pull over and accused of agreeing to pick up the undercover officer in exchange for a $40 fee. Miller claims he offered to take the woman for free. TLC issued a citation for operating a rental vehicle without the required TLC license, which carries a maximum penalty of $2,000.

Now, Miller, along with three other black immigrant drivers, is suing New York’s TLC for allegedly violating their 8th Amendment rights, which prohibit excessive fines. Lawyers representing the drivers allege that TLC routinely engaged in tactics to produce violations of the city’s Livery Hail Street law, which prohibits non-yellow cabs from making airport pickups, including begging and stripping drivers to traveled and appealed to drivers sympathy for members of similar immigrant or ethnic communities. According to the lawsuit, sting operations largely affect thousands of black immigrant drivers.

The lawsuit, which was filed in Brooklyn federal court earlier this year, seeks to certify a class of all drivers who were targeted in the sting operations and who, as of 2020, either paid the full penalty or were agreed with TLC for a reduced amount. Most of the sting operations overwhelmingly target black immigrant drivers, the lawsuit says.

“TLC’s undercover operations are unconstitutional and target not only our most vulnerable communities, but also the simple kindness of ordinary New Yorkers,” said Christopher K. Leung, one of the attorneys representing the drivers. “It is shameful, excessive and must be stopped.”

Also Read: TLC fines rise 446% as taxi drivers struggle to pay medallion debts

TLC said they occasionally conduct undercover sting operations and that drivers are given an opportunity to contest any summons issued in court. They also emphasize that their covert activity is in the interest of public safety.

“We take the safety of passengers and drivers seriously and our undercover airport enforcement operations are designed to ensure that only New York TLC licensed drivers and vehicles that follow established rules can pick up paying passengers,” said Jason Kersten, TLC Press Secretary. “We will consider the complaint.”

Miller, the driver who received the summons after picking up the passenger at JFK, chose to fight the summons on November 22, 2021, at the New York Office of Administrative Hearings and Hearings (OATH). The hearing was not recorded and there were no third-party witnesses. At the conclusion of the hearing, OATH ruled in favor of TLC and ordered Miller to pay a fine of $1,500.

Also Read: Rideshare, Delivery workers seek protection from app companies

“Although I never agreed to accept money to drive this woman,” he said. “I received a summons claiming that I agreed to refer him for money and ordering me to pay TLC the wrongful amount of $1,500.”

According to attorneys at Mobilization for Justice, an organization representing drivers targeted by the TLC, Miller’s case is far from unique. In Freedom of Information Act (FOIL) requests to the TLC, Mobilization for Justice says they obtained data showing that between 2019 and 2022, the agency issued over 11,000 fines, adding up to $8.4 million, for drivers operating vehicles for hire without the required New York TLC license. More than 5,000 calls were issued at JFK and LaGuardia airports. They also say the vast majority of calls they get from drivers asking for their help have been due to airport sting operations.

The increase in tickets came, according to the lawsuit, after the TLC increased the penalty for violating the Street Livery Hail law to a minimum of $1,500 in 2012 in an effort to deter human trafficking and driving without insurance. The lawsuit alleges that the people targeted by TLC in these undercover sting operations are mostly black, immigrant people, some of whom do not speak English. It also says TLC’s imposition of a $1,500 civil penalty violates the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Documented previously reported that between 2017 and 2020, individual TLC fines increased over 400% during the height of the pandemic. Belinda Luu, Senior Staff Attorney at Mobilizing for Justice, argues that the city has continued to exploit a vulnerable population as a way to generate revenue off the backs of drivers.

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