It's unofficially known as the “merch-can’t-touch-the-ground” law, and it’s part of a byzantine set of regulations governing New York City’s street vendors that has long taken a toll on sketch artists and street painters. But in a significant and rare victory for street vendors, 56-year-old Times Square portraitist and cartoonist Yuhua Liu was acquitted of the charge last Friday at Midtown Community Court.
Liu, who lives in Queens after emigrating from Shanghai 16 years ago, has been drawing pedestrians in Times Square for five years. Although he is a portrait artist by training, few passersby have the patience to pose for more than a few minutes, so the vast majority of his drawings are hastily rendered caricatures. In court, he called them “funny faces.”
“I sell the pictures I draw on the spot,” Liu testified through an interpreter.
He can be found at 44th and Broadway and usually works the late night-tourist trade, sketching into the early morning. Just before midnight on July 13, an officer told Liu that one of the three sample drawings hanging off the side of his stand was illegally touching the sidewalk.
At issue was whether Liu was responsible for the artwork on his easel as well as the artwork hanging off a table nearby. The arresting officer testified that when he asked Liu if the table with the low-hanging artwork was his, the artist said yes. However, Liu said in court that he vends from an easel rather than a table, which belonged to a neighboring artist selling colorful paintings of customers’ names.
Liu testified that the sample artwork in question hung mere inches above the sidewalk, and demonstrated this in court, swinging a piece of paper like a pendulum without grazing the witness stand.
Evidently the officer was unswayed, and asked Liu for identification. Moments later, he was arrested.
“I said ‘Take the ID.’ But I can’t when my hands are behind me,” Liu told a reporter after the trial. He added that a second officer had stepped on his leg, as he was on the pavement.
Liu said that although he generally has “between two and five problems” per year with the police, this marked his first arrest. Though he is back to work at the exact same spot in Times Square, Liu said that he feels lingering pain in his wrists ever since being handcuffed and thrown to the ground. “I can’t lift heavy things,” Liu said. “If my hand has problems, I can’t work.”
“The system is set up in every way so you will take a plea and maybe have to take a class at Midtown Community Courthouse or some other slap on the wrist,” said Sean Basinski, Liu’s attorney and founder and director of the Street Vendor Project, an advocacy group for New York City street vendors at the Urban Justice Center.
Indeed, the police issued 510,370 criminal court summonses in 2012, but there were only 1,062 trials, according to an annual report issued by the state’s Office of Court Administration. This means very few questionable arrests like Liu’s ever make trial.
“It was really satisfying to be able to have the vendor tell his story,” Basinski says.
Just before Basinski could call the artist’s wife to the stand as a witness, Judge Alexander Tisch cut him off. He had heard enough to announce a verdict: “Not guilty.”
By Ben Goldstein