NYCLU wins case to open Transit Adjudication hearings


As more late-night straphangers face tickets for not really violating the rules, the MTA will now have to open up the challenges to these summonses to the public. The New York Civil Liberties Union yesterday secured in a victory in federal court in its challenge to the MTA’s long-private Transit Adjudication Bureau. Facing a mandatory federal injunction, the MTA will now have to open its adjudication hearings to the public.

For much of the last thirty years, the MTA has handled enforcement of its rules through the New York Police Department. The NYPD officers who make up the Transit Bureau are tasked with enforcing the MTA’s Rules of Conduct. The penalty for violating a rule is a summons, and those who plead guilty to their summonses get their day in front of the TAB.

The historical problem with the TAB has been its closed nature. Today, after the federal ruling, MTA officials defended the practice of allowing those charged with a violation to determine the public nature of the hearing. “The hearings were never quote-unquote closed; people were just given the right to privacy,” Paul J. Fleuranges, Transit spokesperson, said. “We’ve let the respondent decide whether or not they want to allow anybody inside the hearing with them.”

The problem though with this policy is that it has led to a lack of transparency and precedent. Those charged with a Rules violation have little idea how to defend themselves and what evidence is admissible in a hearing. That changed yesterday as District Judge Richard Sullivan noted how these hearings are simply trials in sheep’s clothing. “In light of these undisputed facts, the Court finds that TAB Hearings ‘walk, talk, and squawk’ like a trial,” he wrote in his decision (PDF), “and as such, the same ‘logic’ that would favor the right of access in the context of a formally styled criminal or civil proceeding applies in equal force in the context of a TAB Hearing, however labeled.”

What then does this mean for the public? In a statement on its website, the NYCLU explains:

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…

“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.”

According to the NYCLU, this probably won’t be the last we hear of this TAB hearings. The NYPD, they say, has issued “up to 171,000 citations annually” for Rules violations, and the TAB upholds more than 83 percent of the challenges to these citations. Furthermore, the NYCLU says that 88 percent of those subjected to police steps over the last five years are black of Latino. Justice underground seems to operate on its own terms.

Right now, then, the MTA’s TAB hearings will become open affairs with everyone’s sins on display. Supposedly, the TAB hearings are fair and afford respondents the same rights a trial. Thorough Google searches question that claim. Meanwhile, the NYCLU will keep a close eye on these cases, and as the cops ramp up enforcement of minor offenses, more riders should turn to these newly-opened TAB hearings to clear their good names.

Disclosure: A few NYU Law students helped the NYCLU argue this case, and I am an NYU Law student as well. I do not, however, know the students who argued the case or had anything to do with it.

Categories : MTA

5 Responses to “NYCLU wins case to open Transit Adjudication hearings”

  1. Sarah says:

    Nice disclosure of potential conflict of interest. After you graduate, will you have to disclose if there are NYU Law alums working on a case you blog about?

  2. Ray says:

    Great post Ben. Perhaps the “sunlight” on TAB and NYCTP activities will contribute to a call for improvement in the articulation of the rules of conduct. It would be worthwhile for an independent body to study how many riders fully understand them and are deliberately mindful.

  3. Andrew says:

    I’m confused.

    If I’m reading this correctly, in the past, the defendant has had the choice of an open or a closed trial. Now, there’s no choice; the trial will be open, whether the defendant likes it or not.

    So how is this good for the defendant? If a defendant wants an open trial, this makes no difference; if he would prefer a closed trial, he can’t have one anymore.

    What am I missing?

    • AK says:

      It’s not about the Defendant’s rights, Andrew. It is about the public’s rights to view the trial-like proceeding and act as a watchdog for overzealous/race-based action by the NYPD. Parties to a trial frequently want privacy (see the Palin/Johnston custody dispute currently), but the public’s right to view proceedings trumps in almost all circumstances (save for testimony by minor victims of incest and certain other very limited scenarios (including sensitive national security information)).

      Overall, this will be a huge net positive for defendants, because organizations like the NYCLU (my employer) will have the opportunity to watch the hearings, report on their deficiencies, and improve due process rights for defendants.


  1. […] the NYCLU has challenged part of the TAB process. Late last year, the group won a legal fight to open up the hearings. The MTA has so far declined to comment on this current matter. Categories : Asides, New York […]

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