NEW YORK CITY — Public Advocate Letitia James and the New York Civil Liberties Union demanded on Monday that city officials investigate the Taxi and Limousine Commission's policy of seizing private vehicles its inspectors suspected of being illegally used as cabs.
Both James and the NYCLU said in statements that they were troubled by DNAinfo New York's report on the hundreds of instances in the past year and a half where innocent drivers were accused of operating unlicensed cabs.
DNAinfo New York's story on Monday documented cases in which people who were driving family members, friends or neighbors were slapped with summonses and had their cars seized. The drivers, many of whom did not speak English, had to prove their innocence weeks later at hearings held by the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings' Taxi and Limousine Tribunal.
James called on the City Council to hold a hearing "so that TLC can explain why these instances are happening, why so many communities of color are receiving summonses, and what they are doing to prevent them from happening in the future."
Read past coverage of people wrongly accused of being illegal cabbies.
DNAinfo reported 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 because the inspectors didn’t follow the law or ignored the explanation of the driver or passenger.
Christopher Dunn, the associate legal director of the NYCLU, said inspectors seem to be making vehicle seizures without the proper legal basis.
“As a legal matter, government officials have no authority to confiscate privately owned cars without first having done a careful investigation, yet it appears that summary confiscation may be a common occurrence with TLC inspectors," Dunn said. "This requires an immediate investigation, as it is no answer to say that innocent people can get their cars back days or weeks later after a TLC hearing."
TLC Chairwoman Meera Joshi defended the agency's practice on "The Brian Lehrer Show" on Monday, noting that 80 percent of the summonses accusing a person of either operating or owning an illegal cab are upheld.
"Car stops can be highly volatile situations," she said. "So, it's not the job of the inspector to adjudicate in the street. They issue the summons, they seize the vehicle and then a separate entity that's not part of the TLC does the adjudication."
Araf Chowdhury said that answer didn't satisfy him, considering he had to spend money on a lawyer after he had his 2000 Lincoln Town Car seized.
In January, inspectors accused Chowdhury of being an illegal cabbie after he had dropped off his 14-year-old daughter and her friend at their high school in Astoria. Chowdhury asked them if he could go into the school, the Baccalaureate School for Global Education, to find his daughter but the inspectors refused to let him.
"They don't give me a chance to. I say, 'It's right across the street. Give me a chance to go and I bring my daughter,'" Chowdhury told DNAinfo New York. "They don't give me a chance. They just took the car right there."
Chowdhury won his Jan. 13 hearing after he, his daughter and his daughter's friend all testified. The two students also provided the judge with letters from their guidance counselors verifying that they attended the school.
The public advocate said inspectors need to do a better job of getting the facts before they haul away a car.
"In light of [Monday]'s story, it is incredibly important that TLC inspectors follow the rules, ensure better training, and use common sense to understand when someone is committing a crime or just trying to drive to work," James said. "We must end unfair harassment and have our inspectors focus more on problematic areas of the city. Additionally, we need more inspectors who are bilingual."