The city is trying to toss out a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of drivers who say they were unfairly targeted by their race when they were fined for illegally picking up street hails at city airports, the drivers’ lawyers allege.
The drivers’ suit claims that the city Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) violated their constitutional rights and doled out excessive fines when it conducted undercover stings mainly at JFK and LaGuardia airports.
In a motion to dismiss filed July 5, the city’s Law Department said the claim lacks merit, but plaintiffs and their lawyers are pushing for a trial.
The TLC conducts operations across the city in which undercover employees try to hail rides in areas where street-hail regulations ban drivers unlicensed by the TLC or who are otherwise operating illegally.
Since January 2020, the TLC has doled out around 5,500 summonses for violations of the law — collecting at least $1 million of $8 million in penalties, according to data from the beginning of the year shared in the suit.
More than half of those summonses came from around JFK and LaGuardia airports, bringing in around $700,000 in fines.
An analysis by Mobilization for Justice, a nonprofit serving as a counsel on the lawsuit, of summons data obtained through a Freedom of Information Law request showed that 86.5% of drivers ticketed are nonwhite.
In opposition to the city’s motion to dismiss, the lawyers said that nonwhite drivers make up just 56% of people who drop-off passengers at the city’s airports, according to a compilation of census data.
Targeting drivers by race and issuing fines of up to $1,500 for a first-time offense — including the possible temporary suspension of a drivers’ license and registration — violates the Constitution, the lawyers argue.
“I know that Mayor [Eric] Adams wants to crack down on crime but he should be focused on legitimate crime and not manufactured crimes by entrapment teams by the TLC,” said Peter Romer-Friedman, a civil rights and class-action lawyer who is also working with Mobilization for Justice on the case.
Jason Kersten, a TLC spokesperson, defended the undercover operations.
“Safety is our top priority, and our undercover enforcement operations target drivers who are not licensed by the TLC, or TLC drivers operating illegally,” Kersten told THE CITY in a statement.
“These drivers are often uninsured, unlicensed, unsafe, and looking to exploit passengers. The riding public, especially tourists, are often unaware of this, and this puts passengers at risk.”
Stung by the TLC
Some of the drivers named in the lawsuit, as well as others who were ticketed, say they never even picked up any passengers.
Sean McMillan drove his dad from Neptune, New Jersey to JFK Airport in April, pulled over in the departure area, and gave his dad a hug goodbye.
Soon after, he was approached by an older gentleman asking if he could drive him to LaGuardia Airport. McMillan is not white.
“I was giving him respect, with a dismissive tone,” the 26-year-old student at the New Jersey Institute of Technology told THE CITY. “Next thing I know two officers approached me and asked for my license and registration.”
McMillan was driving his mother’s car, so the TLC officer gave two tickets, one to him and one to his mom, he said. His hearing has been postponed to later in the year, but he said the whole situation rattled him.
“I almost feel like people are out to get me, it makes it really uncomfortable,” McMillan said. “Now it makes me more closed off and I have anxiety.”
Other drivers caught in the ticketing snare work for ride-hailing apps, but only outside of the city — and are already familiar with TLC’s restrictions on who can pick up street hails and at the airport.
George Numfor lives in The Bronx and dropped off a Westchester passenger booked through Uber at JFK on March 1, 2022. At the time, Numfor didn’t have a TLC license and worked primarily in counties outside of the city.
When a man approached him at the departure gate and asked if he was a taxi, he said “no,” he told THE CITY. The passenger then asked if there was a train to LaGuardia Airport, and finally asked how much it cost to take a cab to that airport from JFK, Numfor said.
“I said, maybe $20 or $15? I don’t know,” he told THE CITY. Soon after, a TLC officer came over and asked to see his identification. He waited close to an hour before the officer returned to tell him he was being ticketed.
“Is it a crime now if somebody asks for help?” said Numfor, 40, an immigrant from Cameroon who is Black. “He asked me something, I explain it to him.”
Without any dash camera or witnesses, he was advised by his lawyer to plead guilty, and he paid a $500 fine.
“When I pay that money I have to now go into borrowing [from family]” to pay other bills, he said. “They’re exploiting people.”
Romer-Friedman noted that Numfor said he repeatedly declined to give a ride and thinks the TLC enforcement agent misled him because of his accent. The lawsuit contends TLC enforcement agents should have to wear body cameras when conducting the sting operations.
‘A Money-Making Thing’
Fabion Lewis had just dropped off an Uber passenger from Westchester at JFK on a cold January day in 2019 when a man wearing just a T-shirt asked him about a ride.
“He had this desperate look on his face and was trying to get my attention,” the 38-year-old driver from St. Albans, Queens, told THE CITY. The man said he was with his wife and needed a ride to LaGuardia.
“I said ‘I can’t do it.’ He was like ‘What do you mean you can’t do it, you’re an Uber driver,’” Lewis recalled. He told the man he could be ticketed.
According to Lewis, the man replied: “You’re gonna get a ticket for doing your job?”
The man continued to beg for a ride for him and his wife, until Lewis agreed to take them for $30, he said. The fake travelers got in his car and stayed in character as a TLC officer walked by to talk to him, Lewis said.
“I just looked at them when they were trying to stay in character — I didn’t react, I gave them a look of disgust,” he said, noting he declined driving them multiple times.
The TLC instructs its employees to not be “overly persuasive, preemptive, or pressuring when acting as decoys” — which the lawyers in the suit call a “cruel farce” and Lewis also disagreed with.
“There’s a lot of resources that goes into it, the persistence,” he said.
“They’re targeting some of the weakest people in our economy and obviously they’re hiring people and investing a lot of money into this so clearly it’s a money-making thing.”