Home MTA Absurdity Overenforcing quality-of-life offenses underground

Overenforcing quality-of-life offenses underground

by Benjamin Kabak

This woman could find herself under arrest for treating the subway bench like her bed. (Photo by flickr user SpecialKRB)

The New York City Transit Rules of Conduct present an entertaining document for those with the patience to wade through a whole bunch of legalese. It is, for instance, a violation to play to music in the subways other than that “listened to solely by headphones or earphones and inaudible to others,” and straphangers may not “cause annoyance, alarm or inconvenience to a reasonable person or create a breach of the peace.” Clearly, these are rules that aren’t enforced more often than they are.

Now, while the same standard applies to just about every rule Transit has put forward, now and then, cops do decide to enforce the rules. One of those rules — 1050.7 (10) — concerns straphanger behavior on subway seats. No person, the rule says, may “occupy more than one seat on a station, platform or conveyance when to do so would interfere or tend to interfere with the operation of the Authority’s transit system or the comfort of other passengers.” The next part bans passengers from “plac[ing] his or her foot on a seat on a station, platform or conveyance.” To violate that one is to commit a crime that can lead to an arrest.

Arrests, as I’m sure most passengers know, are few and far between. In fact, even a summons for such behavior is rare, and we’ve seen countless people both take up more than their fair share of space or prop their feet up late at night on an empty train. Personally, I don’t condone such behavior. It’s inconsiderate of others who must later sit in that seat and inherently selfish, but as crimes go, it is nearly victimless.

Yet, leave it up to the NYPD to over-enforce such a rule. As Joseph Goldstein and Christine Haughney of The Times reported this weekend, violators of such minor offenses have faced inexplicable arrests and nights in jail simply because they put their feet up on a subway seat. The write:

Police officers handed out more than 6,000 tickets for these violations in 2011. But a $50 ticket would have been welcome compared with the trouble many passengers found themselves in; roughly 1,600 people like Mr. Peppers were arrested, sometimes waiting more than a day to be brought before a judge and released, according to statistics from district attorneys’ offices.

In some instances, passengers were arrested because they had outstanding warrants, or did not have photo identification. Some arrests were harder to explain, with no apparent cause other than the seat violation. In at least one case, the arrest led to deportation.

It is not clear why [William] Peppers [who spent 12 hours in jail] was not just given a ticket. He had an arrest record that dated back three decades and involved firearm possession, robbery and the sale of crack cocaine; in 2009 he was released from prison, where he has spent much of his adult life. But he and his lawyer said there was no warrant for his arrest.

In interviews, public defenders who represent many of the passengers arrested say their clients tend to be among the working class, often kitchen workers who are exhausted as they begin or end long shifts at Manhattan restaurants…In a recent decision, a Brooklyn judge, Noach Dear, dismissed the case of a man cited for taking up more than one seat on an A train at 3:10 a.m. on Dec. 24. “There appears to be a disconnect between the code’s goals and its enforcement,” Judge Dear wrote in his decision. He said that he and other Brooklyn judges had found these arrests happened “late at night or early in the morning when subways are generally at their least crowded levels.”

Citing the controversial “broken windows” theory, NYPD officials claim targeting these quality-of-life offenders keeps the subway system safe. “One of the reasons that crime on the subways has plummeted from almost 50 crimes a day in 1990 to only seven now is because the NYPD enforces violations large and small, often encountering armed or wanted felons engaged in relatively minor offenses, like putting their feet up, smoking on a platform, walking or riding between cars, or fare beating,” Paul Browne, an NYPD spokesman, said.

Still, off the record, cops claim that supervisors push them to “bring in one collar” per month. Oftentimes, violators do have outstanding warrants, but now some otherwise innocent defenders are fighting back. One diabetic who wound up in jail secured a $150,000 judgment against the city when cops denied him access to insulin. He was arrested for putting his foot on a seat in order to inject himself with his insulin. Another has filed a suit because police detained him on grounds of an outstanding warrant when such a warrant did not exist. A third had his case dismissed on a promise of good behavior after he was arrested when he dozed off and his leg “leaned on the empty seat next to him,” says The Times.

As I read this story over the weekend, the one word I kept returning to was “overreaction.” It’s important to maintain, as one of those endless automated announcements reminds us, an orderly and clean subway system, but doing so while violating the civil rights of others and basic common sense seems a bit over the top to me. Perhaps such a violation should carry a fine, but to arrest people for putting their foot on a seat in an empty subway car at 2:30 a.m. isn’t what these Rules of Conduct are about.

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Alex C January 9, 2012 - 12:38 am

The NYPD is a bit off on the issue, but regarding those who purposely do put their feet up, fine them. I don’t put my feet on their couch, and I don’t want to sit on whatever the hell falls off their shoe soles.

MaximusNYC January 9, 2012 - 1:01 am

I hate people who take up extra seats when trains are busy. But this is absurd.

The NYPD’s overenforcement problem is not confined to the subways. I and my 18-year-old daughter recently received summonses for taking a walk in Prospect Park 15 minutes after sunset. In late December, of course, sunset in NYC happens at 4:30 pm. So yes, we were cited for being in the park at 4:45 pm.

A summons, of course, requires a court appearance — it can’t be taken care of by simply paying a fine. It so happens my daughter lives out of state, and I can’t just pull her out of her college classes and spend hundreds of dollars to fly her back to NYC in March to spend a few minutes in court. I pointed this out at the time, but it cut no ice with the cops.

Thankfully the 2 of us weren’t hauled off to jail. But all such penny-ante idiocy is still a ridiculous waste of our time and theirs, not to mention our tax dollars that pay them to go around perpetrating this kind of nonsense in order to make their quotas (quotas which, we are assured, do not exist).

MaximusNYC January 9, 2012 - 1:18 am

Sorry for the mostly off-topic rant. It just seems like a trend.

Tsuyoshi January 9, 2012 - 1:31 am

I don’t think that’s a problem with the police. If the opening hours of the park are impractical, then they should be changed.

Kai B January 9, 2012 - 2:00 am

Most larger NYC parks, including Prospect Park, are open until 1 AM, so I don’t know what happened in your case.


Kai B January 9, 2012 - 2:03 am

Meant to reply to MaximusNYC there. I also agree the summons system is antiquated. If I don’t want to fight the ticket, let me pay my fine directly like elsewhere in the world.

Tsuyoshi January 9, 2012 - 1:22 am

Honestly I wish these laws were enforced more often, but during the day. It sounds like priorities are skewed when the laws are enforced primarily at night.

The whole reasoning about getting people on minor offenses so you can get them on major ones is insane, though. Do they seriously mean that they can only catch a murderer if he puts his feet up on a seat on the train at night? Or are they claiming that these minor offenses are not actually worth enforcing, except for the small proportion of minor offenders who are also major offenders? The implication is that nothing actually needs to be illegal, but that they should be able to arrest everyone, just in case anyone they come across has done something that they decide is seriously wrong.

Andrew Smith January 9, 2012 - 11:05 am

The NYPD seems to be making two claims in the story, and as insane as you and many other folks may think them, an enormous amount of evidence bears them out. You cannot intuit effective crime fighting strategy.

1. Police catch a huge number of criminals wanted for serious crimes that are generally committed in private (murder, rape, etc.) by nabbing them for small crimes that are generally committed in public and running background checks. The numbers on how many traffic stops end in felony apprehensions are insanely high.

2. Vigorously enforcing laws against minor quality of life infractions does prevent major crimes. Broken windows has been proven over and over. It’s not quite the miracle effect that its biggest proponents believe, but it’s not “controversial,” except among unreconstructed environmentalist criminologists who are discredited but protected by tenure.

Of all the cases I read about in that story, the only ones that almost definitely seem like absurd overreactions were the insulin one and the William Peppers case (assuming there was no warrant for his arrest or other reason to hold him).

A $50 fine is reasonable. If you cannot produce ID, it is reasonable for the police to hold you until you can — both because you can’t force someone to pay the ticket when he’s giving you a fictitious name and you’d never catch people wanted for other crimes if ID were optional.

Given how many tickets the police issue and how few genuinely outrageous stories The Times could produce, I’m going to give the NYPD the benefit of the doubt, unless I see more creditable evidence to the contrary.

Bolwerk January 9, 2012 - 12:14 pm

#1 – if that’s true, it’s a shocker the NYPD wastes so much effort on sleepy subway riders and doesn’t pay more attention to the roads.

#2 – that’s almost entirely backwards. Vigorously enforcing laws against minor infractions only allows the apprehension of some criminals who already committed major crimes – which logically sets limits to the usefulness of that strategy. Arguably this is a good thing itself, with the caveat that it’s only a matter of time before career and repeat criminals get caught (or natural selection* takes care of it) anyway, so the effectiveness of broken windows is rather questionable even here. Maybe it was more effective back in the high crime days of later Gen X, and could still make a dent in 1994 despite some years of dropping crime. At least as late as the mid-1990s the low-hanging fruit of dumb criminals could still be busted easily enough that way. Now it’s probably just a waste of police resources, at least if it’s not employed with extreme discretion.

* Probably the only somewhat adequate explanation for fallen crime since the 1980s.

But why limit yourself to a $50 fine? That probably doesn’t even cover the costs of enforcement. Figure at least two cops, a prosecution, a judge – much higher if there is an actual collar. Then there is the deterrence matter; a $200 fine doesn’t even stop the dog shit problem, so why would a $50 fine stop an only selectively enforced shoe-on-the-seat problem? If you actually want to stop “quality of life” infractions rather than just use them as license for a backdoor police state, fines seem like the way to go.

These stories are more incredulous power exercises by the NYPD than outrageous, since the people involved at least were committing civil infractions – though sometimes they were overreaches too, since, for instance, it’s technically legal and wholly harmless to take up two seats on an empty train. As for outrageous stories, spend some more time out on the streets. Nary a black male I know (okay, only five) has avoided at least one totally pointless frisking in the past few years, and even the myopic NY Times has given that trend some ink.

SEAN January 9, 2012 - 12:21 pm

Think Al Capone for a minute. The feds got him on tax evation & not on his known criminal activity. More or less that is what the NYPD is doing here, I agree a little common sence is nessessary to determin who is in violation & who has a medicle need.

Melissa January 9, 2012 - 7:59 pm

I just moved to Chicago and I WISH they would do this here. Yes, some people who don’t deserve it are inconvenienced, but it shows the city has a commitment to improving quality of life for the vast majority of hard-working people who drive the city’s economy.

ajedrez January 9, 2012 - 8:59 pm

So hard-working people never get tired and have to spread out just a little on the train?

Personally, I’ve never put my actual shoes up on the seats, but there were times when the train was empty and I would rest my knee on the edge of the seat. And also, stretching out on an empty subway train at 2AM doesn’t have any potential to inconvenience anybody because there is a good chance there are enough seats for everybody.

On the bus, there are times when you have people spreading their legs out (which does interfere with the comfort of other passengers because they can’t fit on and have to wait for the next bus). I’ve even seen people sit upright in a fetal position on the bus and I’ve wanted to strangle them. You see the bus is starting to have standees and you take up two seats (and put your filthy shoes on the seat to boot)???? The nerve!

Bolwerk January 10, 2012 - 1:01 am

This whole thing just cuts different ways. On one hand, people really should be more considerate. On another, (I’m pretty sure) the seating is designed for people of the height and weight they achieved more than a generation ago, not today’s norm of taller and wider. And on yet a third hand – we’re talking a mutant here, yes! – this enforcement obsession is largely just part of a hangup about crime and quality of life that has probably long outlived any meaningful connection it might have once had to reality. Hence these delusional theatrics involving applying broken windows, frisking “suspicious” (=black) people, and stopping the bicyclists from killing people, while the people who actually deserve police attention largely aren’t getting it.

Boris January 9, 2012 - 1:40 am

This is like pulling cars over for driving three miles over the speed limit to catch unlicensed drivers and murderers. Except when it comes to cars, for the NYPD no violation is too large to be routinely ignored.

BBnet3000 January 9, 2012 - 3:00 am

I am all for the enforcement of the rule against playing music out loud. Definitely one of my least favorite things on the train.

JJJ January 9, 2012 - 4:12 am

This sounds like a follow up of the recent article talking about how NYPD frequently stops and frisks men of color simply because they can.

NYPD is out of control.

TP January 9, 2012 - 8:43 am

How about fining people for smelling terrible? You know this is the biggest quality of life issue on the train when it comes to peoples’ behavior.

(And yes, I know, instead of actually fining them, most of these people have some sort of mental problem and need help. But NYPD should get them that help instead of just letting them ride the subway all day in their own personal stinkbox car!)

Bolwerk January 9, 2012 - 12:22 pm

Seems a huge one for about half the population is sexual harassment.

Larry Littlefield January 9, 2012 - 9:16 am

Look at things relatively. My experience is that aside from the personal hygene of the destitute, behaviour — littering, trying to prevent people from using the middle seat, other anti-social acts — are much worse on the LIRR.

People are remarkably quiet, respectful and cooperative on the subway.

Al D January 9, 2012 - 10:30 am

Hey, if someone is all sprawled out on a seat, then they deserve a ticket especially when others are directly, negatively affected. If someone, even late at night is using the seat as a cot, or curled up in a corner all nice n comfy, then either (i) give ’em a ticket or (ii) give ’em a blanket and slippers.

Bolwerk January 9, 2012 - 12:30 pm

It seems to me it’s legitimate to say people’s feet need to stay off the seats. That’s pretty revolting. As for other uses of empty seats on sparsely used trains, tired people deserve a break.

Of course, none of that should preclude using sensible discretion when issuing tickets. Some violations are mistakes with no ill intent and no harm done. That the under-trained, underpaid kids who become NYPD officers are lacking good judgment probably goes to the heart of the matter.

Matthias January 9, 2012 - 2:34 pm

Ticket people who blare their headphones during rush hour when we’re forced to stand right next to them. Leave off-peak riders alone.

Mike K January 9, 2012 - 7:37 pm

How about fining people who hold the subway doors open?

District Attorney Vandal tries his hand at oral argument | appellatesquawk February 20, 2012 - 5:30 pm

[…] few weeks ago, District Attorney Vandal decided to take a break from prosecuting people for taking up more than one seat in the subway and drop into New York’s highest court for a spot of oral argument. He had to be in Albany […]


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