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.