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NYCLU v. New York City Transit Authority (Challenging Transit Authority’s closed-door hearing process)

This federal lawsuit challenges secrecy in the hearing process for people accused by police officers of offenses on New York City’s subways and buses. The secret, closed-door hearings violate the First Amendment, the New York State Constitution and the state’s common law. Each year, the New York City Transit Adjudication Bureau (TAB) holds more than 20,000 hearings to determine the guilt or innocence of alleged violators of the New York City Transit Authority’s rules of conduct. The hearings are closed to the public unless an accused person consents to an observer’s presence. This practice shrouds the hearings in secrecy, depriving the public of information about the fairness of the hearing process and accused transit riders of an understanding of the adjudication process, and concealing important public information concerning police activity in the public transit system.

In recent years, the NYPD has issued up to 171,000 citations annually for violations of the New York City Transit Authority’s rules of conduct. Violations include fare evasion, public intoxication, unreasonable noise and obstructing pedestrian traffic. Officers can either issue summonses returnable to the TAB or criminal court. People who have received a TAB summons and wish to contest the charges in person must appear at a hearing at the bureau’s Brooklyn offices where an adjudicator determines their guilt or innocence. Between 2005 and 2008, the TAB held more than 22,000 hearings a year. According to available data, the TAB levies guilty judgments in more than 83 percent of contested cases. Out of 23,202 summonses that transit riders challenged in 2006, the TAB upheld 19,424 of them.

The NYCLU’s lawsuit charges that by closing these hearings to the public, and by not publishing rules governing the hearings for transit violations, the TAB hinders people’s ability to present a complete, coherent defense. People challenging summonses lack basic information, such as what evidence is inadmissible, when to present evidence or whether they can cross examine adverse witnesses. Closing the hearings also withholds information on police conduct in the city’s massive public transit system. The number of subway riders stopped and questioned by NYPD officers spiked from 2,474 in 2003 to 38,552 in 2007 – a 1,558 percent increase. Statistics show that 88 percent of those subjected to police stops in the subway system are black or Latino.

The NYCLU currently represents a client in a pending TAB proceeding. The client received a summons from an NYPD officer for using his cell phone to film the arrest of a person on a subway platform. The transit rules expressly allow filming in the subway system except with ancillary equipment, such as tripods or lighting. An onlooker may not be arrested for filming an arrest.

On Dec. 28, 2009, a federal judge ruled that the secret, closed-door hearings violate the First Amendment and barred further enforcement of New York City Transit Authority’s court access policy. The Transit Authority appeal the ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. On July 20, 2011, a three-judge panel of the Second Circuit unanimously upheld the lower court’s decision.

S.D.N.Y., Index No. 09 CIV 3595 (direct) 

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