Last week The New York Times reported on the taxi industry’s deplorable practice of preying on low-income drivers by charging exorbitant rates for a taxi medallion, enabling a network of Ponzi Scheme lenders.
But unfair lending practices are not the only way the industry profits from low-income drivers. Through a little-known local law, the City’s Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) also has the power to seize and forfeit the vehicles of drivers who attempt to offer rides without the proper license. It is a power that each year costs about 100 drivers, mostly poor people of color, their vehicle and livelihood.
Here’s how it works. The TLC sets up elaborate “decoy” operations in areas that may be common for drivers to operate an unlicensed cab, like airports or Times Square. They send plain clothes TLC officers to solicit a ride from an unlicensed vehicle. If the driver accepts by quoting a fare, they are then accused of violating the administrative law prohibiting unlicensed solicitation of fares. If the TLC officer determines that the driver was previously found guilty of the same activity on any other occasion within a three-year period, the officer then seizes the driver’s vehicle.
Once a car has been seized during a TLC sting, the only way the driver can get it back is through contesting the charged violation at an administrative hearing, which is supposed to be scheduled within five days. At that hearing, an administrative hearing officer decides whether the violation occurred and if so, whether the TLC gets to keep the vehicle while the process moves forward. The TLC then applies to the Supreme Court for an official judgment of forfeiture in addition to an administratively imposed fine that can run as high as $2,000. When the TLC files a petition for forfeiture, the only question is whether the driver was found guilty of the required two violations within the three year period—an easy standard to meet with almost no defense. Just like that, a driver’s personal property can be taken and sold. A minor violation costs tens of thousands of dollars, sinking vulnerable drivers deeper into poverty.
Because these forfeitures rely on only administrative code violations, unlike those resulting from criminal charges, drivers who cannot afford an attorney are highly unlikely to have legal representation at any stage. Without representation and few procedural safeguards, an accusation by the TLC practically guarantees the agency will be able to prove what is necessary to forfeit a vehicle. This lack of representation only furthers the inherent inequity of the TLC’s seizure practices. Like other forms of policing, the TLC’s undercover sting operations have been criticized for disproportionately targeting low-income people of color Not only is the forfeiture of a vehicle completely disproportionate to the alleged crime of offering an unlicensed ride, but the disproportionate enforcement of the law also effectively enriches the TLC at the expense of those least able to afford it.
Despite two federal court decisions in 2015 and 2017 ruling the TLC’s practice of these seizures unconstitutional in certain respects, the practice continues today. Through this process, the TLC reports that it seized 143 vehicles over a 20-month period between 2016 and 2018. That’s 143 owners who have faced the unwitting loss of one of their most valuable assets simply because they attempted to make a living out from under the heavy thumb of TLC’s licensing scheme. That scheme lies at the heart of a debt crisis, crushing livelihoods and even pushing an alarming number of yellow cab drivers to suicide As rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft disregard workers’ rights at every turn, and loan sharks circle cab drivers with predatory deals for medallions, it is clear that fair, meaningful regulation of the private cab industry is essential. But it is equally clear that enforcement of this administrative law is neither fair nor in workers’ interests.
Together, the enormous financial risk of obtaining a medallion and the TLC’s aggressive policing and forfeiture of unlicensed vehicles creates a no-win situation for low-income drivers attempting to utilize their car for their livelihood. Meanwhile, the TLC profits off of those least likely to be able to afford it—a “policing for profit” practice like the one recently criticized by the U.S. Supreme Court in Timbs v. Indiana If driver protections are to mean anything, we must investigate the TLC and hold its leaders to account for these abusive practices.
Emily Ponder-Williams is a supervising attorney at Neighborhood Defender Service.