NEW YORK, NY – MARCH 9: A Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) medallion seen on a parked New York City yellow taxi in Queens on March 9, 2021 in New York City. (Shutterstock)
By Amir Khafagy, Documented NY
It was an unusually mild August day in 2021, when immigrant Jamaican-American Stanford Miller, 49, who was dropping off relatives at JFK Airport, was approached by an elderly woman looking for a ride. Miller wasn’t a cab driver, but a construction worker on his way to his job.
“I felt compassion for her and agreed to drive her since I was heading back there anyway,” he said.
The woman was an undercover New York TLC (Taxi & Limousine Commission) officer. Soon after Miller picked up the woman, he was forced to pull over and was accused of agreeing to pick up the undercover officer in exchange for a $40 fare. Miller alleges that he offered to pick up the woman for free. The TLC issued a summons for operating a for-hire vehicle without the required TLC license, which has a maximum penalty of $2,000.
Now, Miller along with three other immigrant drivers of color, are suing the New York TLC for allegedly violating their Constitutional 8th Amendment rights, which prohibit excessive fines. Attorneys representing the drivers allege that the TLC routinely engaged in tactics to manufacture violations of the City’s Street Livery Hail law, which bars non-yellow cabs from making airport pick-ups, including begging and badgering drivers to give them rides and appealing to drivers’ sympathy for members of similar immigrant or ethnic communities. According to the suit, the sting operations overwhelmingly affect thousands of immigrant drivers of color.
The lawsuit, which was filed in Brooklyn federal court during the first days of the year, seeks to certify a class of all drivers who were targeted in the sting operations and who, since 2020, either paid the full penalty or settled with the TLC for a reduced amount. The majority of the sting operations overwhelmingly target immigrant drivers of color, the suit says.
“The TLC’s undercover operations are unconstitutional and aimed at 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’s shameful, excessive, and must be stopped.”
The TLC said that they do occasionally conduct undercover sting operations and that drivers are given an opportunity to challenge any summons issued in court. They also stress that their undercover 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 following established rules may pick up passengers for pay,” said Jason Kersten, TLC Press Secretary. “We will review 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 City Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings (OATH). The hearing was not recorded nor were there any third-party witnesses present. At the conclusion of the hearing, OATH ruled in favor of the TLC and ordered Miller to pay a $1,500 fine.
“Although I never agreed to accept any money to drive this woman,” he said. “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.”
According to attorneys with Mobilization for Justice, an organization that represents drivers targeted by the TLC, Miler’s case is far from unique. In Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests made to the TLC, Mobilization for Justice says that they obtained data showing that between 2019 and 2022, the agency issued over 11,000 fines to drivers for operating for-hire vehicles without the required New York TLC license. More than 5,000 of the summons were issued at JFK and LaGuardia airports. They also say the vast majority of calls they receive from drivers requiring their assistance 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 the TLC in these undercover sting operations are primarily people of color, immigrants, some of whom are non-English speaking. It also says that the TLC’s imposition of a $1,500 civil penalty violates the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Documented previously reported that between 2017 to 2020, individual TLC fines rose over 400% during the height of the pandemic. Belinda Luu, Senior Staff Attorney at Mobilization for Justice, argues that the City has continued to exploit a vulnerable population as a way to generate revenue off the backs of drivers.