Manhattan lawyers Gideon Orion Oliver, of GideonLaw, and David Rankin and Steve Vaccaro, from Rankin & Taylor, are preparing a class action lawsuit against the New York Police Department following its officers’ ongoing enforcement of laws that do not apply to cyclists riding in New York City. We spoke to Oliver about the case, which types of tickets and summonses are especially contentious, and the broader policy changes needed to resolve the current conflict.
Beyond getting your plaintiffs’ tickets and summonses thrown out, what broader goals do you have in this case?
In a bigger-picture way, something that we’re looking at is trying to get the police department to train and supervise its officers better, in terms of enforcement action and bicycling in the city. What that ends up meaning in terms of the relief that we ask for in the suit, I can’t exactly say, but there are certainly broader policy goals. It’s extraordinary that in 2004 the city came into federal court and admitted that a certain provision of the law didn’t apply to cycling in the city but it keeps popping up not just in individual tickets but in what we believe are formal training materials. The police department over the past decade has had a very aggressive anti-bike approach to law enforcement, and it’s really in conflict with the Department of Transportation’s visions, goals, and rules and regulations. So certainly the police department shouldn’t be off on its own, enforcing laws that don’t apply or just making it up as it goes along. It’s dangerous, it’s bad public policy and it’s really sort of schizophrenic.
Is there one specific law that’s most frequently misapplied?
I think if you sat down and looked at all the tickets that have been issued since October of last year, the majority of them would probably be for red lights and bike lanes. And there are two categories of the bike lane tickets. One is the VTL 1234, which are totally invalid [because they don't apply to NYC], not worth the paper they’re written on, that should be very open and shut. The other is officers writing tickets for the DoT traffic-rule provisions about bike lanes, which are in section 4-12. With those we might have to get into the actual training, if there is any, that the department uses to tell officers when they have the right to stop someone, for example, for riding outside of a bike lane. What the law actually says is: if a usable bike lane is provided, on most roadways, you’re supposed to be in it unless there are hazardous or dangerous conditions, or there’s a double-parked car, or whatever. But it seems like cops are writing tickets when they see a cyclist outside of a bike lane without taking any of that into account, sometimes even stopping in the bike lane and then writing tickets for people who go around them. It’s very difficult to defend if the officer’s recollection of things is going to be what it usually is, which is not entirely consonant with what actually happened: “No, there was no obstruction, there was no traffic on the street, just this bicyclist in the middle of the road and a car behind him that couldn’t pass.”
What other types of tickets are you looking into?
Well, for example, the police department has been writing these “reckless driving” summonses to bicyclists. And reckless driving is a Class A misdemeanor; it’s a summons court at 346 Broadway, and the judges always give people the speech that it’s the most serious case that gets heard. And it just doesn’t apply to bicycles because it’s “operation of a motor vehicle.” And it’s hit-or-miss whether the lawyer who’s representing people that day, or the judge who’s sitting on the bench, will be tuned into that. So some of the tickets end up standing up when they shouldn’t have been written in the first place. Neither the law enforcement end of the system nor the criminal court end of the system is effectively dealing with those problems.