NEW YORK CITY — Kareeal Akins still gets chills thinking about the long, frigid walk home that he and his then-pregnant wife were forced to make this past winter after the city seized his car.
At about 9 p.m. on Jan. 24, he drove his white 2002 Honda Accord from his Sheepshead Bay apartment to the corner of Church Avenue and Ocean Parkway in Kensington to pick up his wife, Natalie, from her friend’s home.
He remembers pulling up to the intersection, his wife getting into his car and then a vehicle behind them flashing its sirens.
It wasn’t police officers stopping them. It was two Taxi and Limousine Commission inspectors, enforcement agents tasked with policing livery cars and yellow taxis to protect New Yorkers from dangerous and uninsured illegal cabbies.
What many New Yorkers don’t know is TLC inspectors also have the power to seize a vehicle they suspect of operating as an illegal cab.
The inspectors separated Kareeal and Natalie. They accused him of being an unlicensed hack. They asked Natalie whether she was a paying passenger and, if not, to prove how she knew him.
“She told them my name, address, Social Security number,” Kareeal, a Barclays Center security guard, recalled. “They didn’t want to hear it. They still took the vehicle.”
The inspectors seized Kareeal’s car and issued him a summons for being an unlicensed cabbie. Stranded, the Akins made the hour-and-a-half walk back to Sheepshead Bay as temperatures hovered in the low teens.
“By the time I got home, I had like frostbite,” Natalie said.
Read past coverage of people wrongly accused of being illegal cabbies.
A week later, a city administrative judge dismissed the summons, siding with the couple. They had submitted Kareeal’s Barclays Center pay stubs as evidence and stated he had never been a livery driver. They also testified how they were raising three children together.
In her decision, the judge noted that the inspector's testimony seemed inconsistent. The inspector initially said that, aside from Natalie, Kareeal had a male passenger. He later said there was a second male passenger, even though the couple had a babyseat in the rear.
“It was a ridiculous situation,” Kareeal said. “I was stressed out, and [my wife] was stressed.”
The Akins aren’t the only ones to have their lives upended by TLC inspectors. A DNAinfo New York review of decisions by the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings' Taxi and Limousine Tribunal judges shows that in the past year and a half, hundreds of people going about their daily routines had their cars seized because TLC inspectors suspected they were unlicensed cabbies.
DNAinfo found that, between Jan. 1, 2013, and June 13, 2014, the tribunal adjudicated 7,187 cases involving accusations that a driver was operating an illegal cab or the owner of the car allowed someone to use their vehicle as one.
Tribunal judges — who are independent decision makers — dismissed 1,442 of those cases. Many of them were dismissed because the inspectors didn’t follow the law or ignored the explanation of the driver or passenger. Of those, 176 drivers had their cases dismissed after proving that their passengers were family members, friends or neighbors.
They included a retired MTA worker dropping off his girlfriend at her job at the Queens racino, an Astoria dad taking his teenage daughter and her friend to school and a Brooklyn retiree who volunteers at a convent giving nuns a lift to JFK Airport in his minivan.
While the drivers proved their innocence, they still had their vehicles temporarily seized and either went without a car for weeks while they awaited their hearing at the tribunal in Long Island City or shelled out hefty sums to get it back from the impound lot.
A review of the 1,442 decisions also showed:
• Many times the driver, the passenger or both didn’t speak English and the inspectors did not have a translator, muddying the accounts of what transpired. In one case, inspectors seized the car of a Japanese man who was showing his three non-English-speaking friends visiting from Japan around the city. The inspectors relied on the passengers’ English-Japanese translation book to question them. With the help of an interpreter and copies of his friends’ travel itineraries, the driver later proved at his hearing that they were friends.
• The inspectors frequently didn’t know the rules or ignored them. Judges dismissed 108 cases because, while the driver was a non-TLC-licensed cabbie, the pick-up occurred outside New York City. The law permits these drivers to pick up passengers outside city limits and bring them into the boroughs. Yet, in many instances, the inspectors provided exculpatory evidence in their summonses by noting that the trips originated outside the city.
• Judges faulted hundreds of inspectors for either changing their testimony during hearings, failing to recall key details about the seizures or not having adequate legal cause to make an initial car stop. In a Nov. 14 decision, a judge wrote that an inspector who didn’t speak Spanish admitted to lying about hearing a driver who only spoke Spanish confess to being an illegal cabbie. The judge dismissed the case.
• In 68 tribunal decisions, the judges threw out the cases because the defendants proved they were private chauffeurs or drivers working solely for one business — both of which are legal. A dozen of these cases involved non-English-speaking drivers who worked for restaurants or nail salons and picked up their co-workers as part of their job.
TLC spokesman Allan Fromberg defended the agency’s vehicle seizures, noting that the system works because each accused driver or owner gets a day in court.
“It‘s true that there are occasions when a situation is not always as it might appear to an inspector, even after establishing a basis of reasonable suspicion, investigating what facts are available and interviewing those involved,” he said.
“That’s precisely why they do not adjudicate these matters in the field … that’s a job for the administrative law judges at [the TLC tribunals], where respondents have the option to be represented by attorneys and present evidence and/or witnesses. While the vast majority of cases — more than 80% — are prosecuted as written, the fact that there are a certain number of cases that are dismissed means that the system works for everyone.”
The TLC has roughly 170 enforcement inspectors. They wear badges and bulletproof vests and can make arrests, but they do not carry guns.
The inspectors generally work in pairs within a squad of 10, fanning out across a swath of the city.
Sometimes they partner with the NYPD, whose officers also have the power to seize a car suspected of being an illegal for-hire service. Port Authority officers can also make seizures — but they and NYPD officers only account for a small percentage of cases.
TLC inspectors frequently make seizures at popular pick-up and drop-off spots, including Midtown hotels, the cruise terminals on the west side of Manhattan and LaGuardia Airport. The No. 1 spot, though, is JFK Airport.
Inspectors seized Cirilo Fortunato’s son’s minivan last year when he borrowed it to drop off nuns who were visiting from another country at JFK.
The 70-year-old retiree volunteers for an order of Catholic nuns who run Centro Maria, a Hell's Kitchen residence for young women. Every Friday, Fortunato drives 29 miles outside the city to pick up bread that’s donated to the sisters. However, last July the order asked him to take two nuns to the airport because its car wasn’t working that day.
“The way it was explained to me, some of [the nuns] come from countries with a lot of crime so they don't feel safe getting in a taxi," said Fortunato, who speaks limited English. "The nuns ask me to drive them so that they don't have to get a taxi."
When they arrived at the terminal, he went to get the nuns luggage out of the trunk and inspectors stopped him. Fortunato said since the inspectors didn’t speak Spanish, he didn’t fully understand what was going on.
Fortunato’s son’s car was seized and he spent three hours getting back to his Coney Island home.
A July 10, 2013, decision regarding Fortunato’s case said the inspectors claimed they witnessed an exchange of money. Through an interpreter, Fortunato explained his affiliation with the order and got the case dismissed.
"[The inspectors] told me that [the nuns] gave me money, but they never gave me money,” he said. “They told me that the people I dropped off said they paid me. They definitely did not."
Fortunato’s run-in with inspectors came during a dramatic increase in TLC vehicle seizures in 2013. The rise was due to the agency contracting with a Brooklyn towing firm to expand its impound storage space.
By December 2013, halfway through the city’s 2014 fiscal year, TLC inspectors had seized 4,470 vehicles, according to an agency press release. By comparison, inspectors seized 1,222 vehicles for the entire 2010 fiscal year, records show.
The seizures are a revenue producer for the city. Accused drivers or the owners of the allegedly illegal cab can plead guilty, but must pay a fine of at least $600 and hundreds of dollars more for the cost of towing and impoundment.
The accused also have the option of posting a $2,000 bond to get their car out of an impound lot while they wait for their day in court. If they win, they get the money back.
Retired MTA bus maintainer John Brunson, 65, said even though he won his case, he ended up spending $1,200 on a rental car, a lawyer and towing fees.
The South Ozone Park resident had his black 2005 Dodge Magnum seized on Sept. 19, 2013, after he dropped his girlfriend off at her job at the Resorts World Casino in Queens. When she got out of the front passenger seat, she handed him a flier from Wal-Mart, where the two had been earlier in the day.
TLC Inspectors believed it was dollar bills and, working with the NYPD, they stopped his car as he left the casino’s parking lot.
“I told them, 'Look I've been dropping off my girlfriend for almost a year now. I come here at least 10 times a week. I drop her off and pick her up,'” he recalled. “I said if you don't believe me, let's go back to the casino.”
Brunson said he tried to call his girlfriend on the phone, but her phone was off because casino employees aren't allowed to keep them on. He offered the inspectors and the NYPD officer the personnel number at the casino, but they refused to call it.
He won his case at the Taxi and Limousine Tribunal on the afternoon of Oct. 11.
Normally, defendants who win get paperwork so they can immediately retrieve their cars. But when Brunson went the next day to Knights Towing’s impound lot in Bushwick, he was told that the TLC hadn’t signed off yet. He said he had to wait three more days and was forced to pay $320 in impound fees.
“The only thing they're interested in is taking your car away and making you pay money,” Brunson said.
He and his girlfriend are both black. He believes that the TLC inspectors racially profiled him.
The TLC has said that its inspectors receive training and follow strict guidelines for vehicle seizures that do not refer to the race or ethnicity of a suspected illegal for-hire driver.
Brunson said at his tribunal hearing he reached a different conclusion.
“When I went to court, 95 percent of the people there were immigrants and minorities, just hardworking people trying to make a living,” Brunson said.
“I wasn't surprised. Knowing the way this system works, it didn't surprise me.”