Newly minted New Yorker Joshua Chavez is two months into a Sisyphean battle to beat a fare evasion ticket that he got as a sort of welcome to the city fuck you from the NYPD.
On March 10th, Chavez, two weeks into his move from North Carolina, had just spent the first night at his new Brooklyn apartment and was headed into Manhattan to apply for jobs. The first snag he encountered was when he accidentally swiped into the Canarsie-bound side of the DeKalb Avenue L station, then realized there was no way to cross over to the Manhattan side.
In Chavez's telling, he went back up the stairs crossed the street, and came back into the station with his card in hand, ready to explain to an MTA worker his situation and ask to be let in. But before he could get the words out, the worker waved Chavez and several others through the emergency exit, saying that he was in the middle of repairing the turnstile, Chavez recalled.
That's when three plainclothes officers stepped off a train and cornered him.
"I thought they were trying to rob me at first," Chavez remembered. (Just last month two men posing as plainclothes cops robbed a man in the Times Square subway station by telling him he could pay a fine directly to them.)
Chavez said the officers asked to see his MetroCard, and he asked who they were. One said, "We're the police, sir," and he asked for proof. They produced badges from under their shirts, but he asked for photo ID. Then, he recalled, they put him in cuffs, and one said, "We'd be happy to play games with you if you want us to play some games."
Video shot by Chavez after he was uncuffed captures police arguing the point with him, saying people who aren't cops wouldn't ask for his ID.
What could have been Chavez's hallelujah moment came next, when the MTA worker walked over and said to the officers, "I let him go because [inaudible]. I fixed the machine." But the cops shrug him off.
"We saw everything," one says.
Now it's late May and Chavez has a job at a high-end men's beauty parlor, but he's still fighting the $100 ticket. He said he appealed it before one Transit Adjudication Bureau hearing officer, and that the officer upheld the ticket, even though he agreed Chavez didn't intend to avoid paying the fare. He knocked $40 off the fine for good measure.
The Transit Adjudication Bureau, for the uninitiated, is a non-court enforcement system presided over by hearing officers, who are appointed to their posts (PDF) by the president of the New York City Transit Authority, a subset of the MTA. The opaqueness of the bureau's operations has been the subject of lawsuits by the NYCLU.
To appeal again, Chavez had to pay two thirds of the $60 fine to show good faith. It will be reimbursed if he wins. He paid, partially in pennies that he thoughtfully rolled to avoid inconveniencing the fine-collectors too much.
He had a second appeal hearing before a three-hearing-officer panel on Tuesday, and though he hasn't gotten the decision back yet, he is glum about how things went. The panelists refused to watch the video on his cellphone, and one asked why he hadn't made a DVD of it. He said the previous appeal officer mentioned making a DVD as a possibility but never demanded it.
Chavez said data from his unlimited card show he had swiped through on the Brooklyn side, but a hearing officer turned this fact against him, asking why he'd had his card out when he approached the MTA worker if he knew that it wouldn't be usable for another 18 minutes. The officers also questioned how they could know for sure whether the man in the MTA vest and uniform with the laminated ID card around his neck actually worked for the MTA.
If this panel rules against Chavez, he can take it to the Brooklyn Supreme Court. He gets passionate when explaining why he is going to all of this trouble over something he could get out of his life for the same price as a couple of six-packs:
Most people aren't going to do this. It's 60 dollars—come on man, just pay it. That's not the issue. The issue is how many times have they gotten away with this in the past simply because nobody has the time or the resources to fight it? Sixty dollars here, sixty dollars there—they're robbing people.
Fare-beating is a hallmark of so-called Broken Windows policing. Back in February, both turnstiles were broken at one entrance to the Bergen Street station in Carroll Gardens and, rather than try to control the crowd, five officers hid out of sight beyond the entry-point and ticketed those who came through the emergency exit, DNAinfo reported. Fare-beating was the third most common type of misdemeanor arrest last year (PDF), with 26,000 people taking a ride in a squad car for it, and another 67,500 getting a transit ticket like Chavez's.
How many of those charges are questionable is perhaps unknowable—a transit officer recently told us that on a fare evasion detail "discretion isn't allowed"—but with continuing pressure from One Police Plaza to keep low-level arrests and summons numbers up, the incentive for abuse is undeniable.
The NYPD did not respond to a request for comment.
Update May 24th:
Chavez informs us that his second appeal has been denied.