The New York Civil Liberties Union has won a federal lawsuit challenging secrecy in the hearing process for people accused by police officers of offenses on New York City’s subways and buses. In a decision released today, 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.

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. The NYCLU argued that 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 a ruling dated December 23, 2009, Judge Richard J. Sullivan declared the TAB access policy unconstitutional and issued a preliminary injunction against its further enforcement.

“This ruling unlocks the doors that hid from public view tens of thousands of hearings each year,” said Christopher Dunn, NYCLU associate legal director and lead counsel in the case. “Moving forward, the NYCLU will monitor these hearings so we can make sure they are conducted fairly and so we track NYPD enforcement activity in the 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. All criminal court proceedings are completely open to the public.

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 courts have confirmed that there is no room for a secret court in New York City,” said Donna Lieberman, NYCLU executive director. “The Transit Adjudication Bureau’s refusal to grant the public access to these hearings violates core democratic principles of open government. New Yorkers have a right to know about police conduct on our city’s subways and buses.”

The NYCLU’s lawsuit charged 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.

In addition to Dunn, the case was worked on by Matthew Hallinan, Brian Horan and Vanessa Pastora, law students enrolled in the New York University School of Law Civil Rights Clinic.

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