Taking Cops to Court Over Pseudo Bike Laws

06/08/2011 4:00 AM |

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.

2 Comment

  • I think this video pretty mcuh explains it all.. gets good at 1:20: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bzE-IMaegzQ

  • I have absolutely no criminal record whatsoever… except in NYC where I road my bike daily. After a spotless decade in Portland, OR, where the bicycle cops were our friends and protectors, even during Critical Mass, I was literally pulled from my bicycle within a month of moving to Manhattan. It was the Halloween Critical Mass ride, and the officer, who was a nice guy and offered that he thought this was all BS, ticketed me for not having a back light (a reflector was not enough). When I protested, he explained that the mayor had given orders to make up anything they had to in order to detain and ticket bicyclists that night. My friend was ticketed for not having a bell a block later. The officer ticketing me and his compatriot openly debated what they could possibly ticket me and some others for, after we had already been stopped, and examined out bikes to find something. Some months later, on two different occasions, I was ticketed as I came off the street onto the sidewalk. The first time I was in the process of picking up my bike to carry it down a long set of stairs into the park. The second time I was in the process of dismounting to lock it up in front of a pizza place. On neither occasion did I ride on the sidewalk for more than ten feet, and on neither occasion were there any pedestrians in the way. On the second occasion, I was actually searched, handcuffed, and jailed briefly. The judges in theses cases threw them all out without much deliberation, and the officers all apologized profusely for having to waste their and my time. This leads me to believe that there is something going on further up the chain of command. Someone somewhere is targeting bicyclists in NYC, and in the meantime wasting a lot of time and taxpayer money.