May 26, 2011 — The New York Civil Liberties Union today filed a federal lawsuit challenging the NYPD’s unlawful practice of detaining, questioning and searching innocent New Yorkers – particularly blacks, Latinos and other non-whites – who are riding in livery cars.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, maintains that the NYPD is using its Taxi/Livery Inspection Program (TRIP) to expand the reach of its unconstitutional stop-and-frisk practices. The lawsuit does not challenge safety stops of livery cars but seeks to halt the NYPD’s practice of using these stops to detain, question and search passengers who are not suspected of any wrongdoing.
“Over the past few years, NYPD officers have stopped and frisked millions of innocent people for walking in the wrong neighborhood at the wrong time, and now the Department has extended this unlawful practice to passengers in livery cars,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “It’s just another disturbing example of the NYPD’s campaign of excessive and racially lopsided policing, and we’re confident the courts will put a stop to it.”
The plaintiffs in the case were riding in livery cabs and were detained, questioned and searched even though the livery drivers told officers there was no problem and even though the officers did not suspect the plaintiffs of any wrongdoing. The lawsuit asks the court to declare that the NYPD’s actions violate constitutional protections against unreasonable searches. It seeks an injunction to end abuses of the TRIP program and to require new training and close supervision of the program. The City of New York, NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly and individual police officers are named as defendants.
“Merely riding in a livery cab should not make you a target for the police,” said NYCLU Associate Legal Director Christopher Dunn, lead counsel on the case. “We fully support driver safety checks, but this frightening mistreatment of livery passengers must stop.”
Plaintiff Terrance Battle, a 38-year-old radio executive, stand-up comic, and father of two children, frequently takes livery cars. Late at night on Oct. 30, 2010, Battle was taking a livery car to his home in Bedford-Stuyvesant following a performance in Manhattan when three police officers pulled over the car on Battle’s street. After talking to the driver and being told everything was fine, the officers ordered Battle out of the car. Though frightened, Battle complied with the order. At the officers’ request, he provided them his ID. The officers frisked him and searched his pockets and bag. When he asked why he was being searched, one of the officers pointed to a TRIP decal on the car and explained that the search was standard practice under TRIP.
“Being questioned and searched by three officers in the middle of the night was a frightening and humiliating experience,” Battle said. “What they did was wrong, and I want to make sure it doesn’t happen again to me or to others who use livery cars.”
Plaintiff Munir Pujara, a 37-year-old lawyer and Harlem resident of South Asian descent, routinely takes livery cars between his Bronx law office and his home. At about 11:30 p.m. on Sept. 3, 2010, Pujara hailed a livery car to return home from work. Shortly into the journey, police pulled over the car. An officer asked the driver about his safety, and the driver said everything was fine. An officer then ordered Pujara to get out the car. When Pujara questioned their right to do this, they threatened him with arrest.
Pujara then got out of the car and was told to turn around and place his hands on the roof and to spread his legs to be searched. He told the officers they had no right to search him, but they insisted they did, pointing to the TRIP decal on the car.
“As a lawyer, I knew this was illegal and I told the officers it was illegal, but it made no difference,” Pujara said. “Every time I ride in a livery cab now, I can’t help but think about how upset and afraid I was.”
NYU Law School Civil Rights Clinic students Lisa Braff and Evan Parzych worked with NYCLU’s Chris Dunn to prepare the lawsuit.