A Bedford-Stuyvesant couple is two and a half years into what looks like a losing legal battle over a stack of tickets they got for allegedly running a series of red lights in the neighborhood, to the tune of over $4,600.

It was around midday one Sunday in October 2014 when Ethan Frey was biking to a coffee shop in Bed-Stuy with his then-boyfriend, James Gerien-Chen. The two, who have since married, pedaled down Quincy Street until they reached Marcus Garvey Boulevard, where they took a right, heading south towards Fulton Street. As they pushed off into the intersection at Marcus Garvey, Frey recalls, they realized 1) that the light hadn't quite turned from red to green yet. This was relevant because 2) there was a police car with officers inside, sitting across the intersection on Quincy.

"The light was changing and we went through the light because there weren't many cars around and I didn't see the cop at first," Frey said. He added later, "We hit a red at Gates" Avenue, the next intersection, "and I said to James, 'Hey, I think that cop saw us. We should wait.'"

Still, he acknowledged, he and Gerien-Chen may have entered that next intersection as the light was changing. The officers didn't pull them over for another few blocks, though. The cop who approached them, Officer Kevin McLeish, took their IDs and, without explanation, retreated to the car for 20-30 minutes, Frey said. When the officer returned, he asked if they had heard of Vision Zero, the signature de Blasio road-safety initiative then in its first year. He said, basically, "we're endangering people's lives, and this is for our safety, and we need to wise up," Gerien-Chen remembered.

It was then that McLeish informed them that he had been following them for blocks and had seen them run four red lights. He returned to his car to finish up the paperwork, and that's when reality set in.

"At that point we realized that we'd gotten ticketed for four different red lights," Frey said. "We were kind of stunned."

As the couple would learn shortly, not only were they getting four tickets for running red lights, but because of rules meant to apply to drivers who commit repeat offenses within the course of 18 months, the fines would increase for each successive one. The first red light was to cost them $150 each. The second: $350. The last two: $900.

Frey works for a foundation in Midtown and had been commuting by bike to work. He also had done some street safety advocacy with Brooklyn bike types, so after he got the tickets, he reached out to members of Transportation Alternatives to see if they had any advice. What he learned, basically, was that he could make an elaborate case for himself, but he could still be screwed. Lawyers who specialize in cyclist advocacy tend not to appear in traffic court because the fines are typically less than what the legal work would cost. Similarly, hiring an attorney who is a traffic-court regular would mean sinking more money into defense without a guarantee of beating the fines.

Nevertheless, Frey thought he had a case. First, his brain trust advised that he postpone the initial trial date. That hearing was set for October 2015, and postponing it once moved it to October 2016, so he had two years to work with. Also, he remembered seeing the officer sitting in his car at Quincy and Marcus Garvey, and yet the tickets indicated that Frey and Gerien-Chen had run the first light a block earlier, at Quincy and Throop Avenue, which would have been difficult if not impossible to see. What's more, the cop's sequence of events had the cyclists riding through a green light at Gates Avenue, then running the subsequent two reds. However, the lights on Marcus Garvey are synced in such a way that one turns green after another at a cyclist's pace—so if you have one green, you have several after that.

At most, in Frey's recollection, he and his partner had run two red lights, at Quincy and Marcus Garvey and Quincy and Gates, both times as the light was about to turn green.

Frey retraced his route armed with a camera, and shot photos and videos backing up his case. He also learned that in 2015, in response to a class-action lawsuit about the Department of Motor Vehicles improperly charging cyclists an $88 "vehicle surcharge" on traffic tickets, some NYPD officers had begun writing cyclists' tickets under a different catchall statute, which carries a lesser fine of $50 (the NYPD didn't respond to a query asking if this was a department policy). If all else failed, he planned to ask for his fines to be dropped to this amount.

It was all for naught.

McLeish read from written testimony and jumped around a lot, Frey said, and the judge, Victoria Sanborn "kept jumping to the wrong pages." McLeish, in explaining how he followed the cyclists and why he didn't pull them over at first, claimed to have been behind them on Quincy Street, and to have been held up by traffic from the churches along the way, according to Frey. The problem with this: there are no churches along that stretch of road, and if there were, the road is wide enough to drive around a double-parked car.

Frey gave Sanborn maps and explained his case at length. When he was done, "The judge only asked one thing of me, which is how I knew the cop I saw was the same cop who pulled me over." Frey remembers saying that it was because he saw the officer in the car. Evidently this was not satisfactory.

The judge upheld all four tickets.

Gerien-Chen is a doctoral student studying Japanese history on a fellowship in Japan. After some difficulty getting the court to agree to let him postpone his hearing because his fellowship requires him not to leave Japan, he got it pushed to this April. He is up against the same judge, and the same officer, and planning to make basically the same arguments.

Frey didn't pay the fines by the October due date—"It's like, am I going to pay $2,500 to the city of New York or am I going to continue to pay off my student loan debt?"—so his driver's license has been suspended, and additional fees have brought the total to $2,580. He plans to pay eventually, he said. The speed at which he does so depends on how this might affect his credit. He decided not to appeal the decision because of what it would cost in legal and court fees.

In 2011, McLeish was one of nine officers accused in a federal lawsuit of repeatedly arresting a panhandler in Times Square without cause. The city settled the case for $45,000, plus $85,000 in legal fees.

"The problem with this and other cases involving traffic tickets is that there’s really not a lot people can do at the DMV," said Steve Vaccaro, a personal injury attorney focusing on cyclists and pedestrians who, after some consideration, passed on Frey's case. "Most of the judges take the officers’ word for it, and some of them are outright hostile to cyclists."

Vaccaro has heard a lot of cyclist yarns, and he says this tops all the bundled bike ticket cases he's encountered. "It's the worst I've ever seen," he said.

What he takes issue with about McLeish's approach is that "ticketing ought to reflect the level of danger and risk and harm posed by the conduct." He asked, rhetorically, "Why don't [police] follow speeding motorists who speed through five [red lights], or a driver who speeds at 60 miles per hour in a residential neighborhood" and let them rack up tickets? "They don’t do that because it poses a risk of harm."

"To them, one red light ticket is as good as any other, and if they can write them more efficiently by following a cyclist, then that means they're done with their ticket-writing sooner," Vaccaro said.

Vaccaro was alluding to the quota system that the NYPD has long denied existing in the face of voluminous documentation to the contrary from numerous precincts over the years. Quotas had a moment in the spotlight in 2010 when the Village Voice published a series of secretly recorded tapes revealing the existence of them and other commander-directed misconduct at Bedford-Stuyvesant's 81st Precinct. The adjacent 79th Precinct led the city by far in sidewalk cycling summonses from 2008-2011, according to a study that showed that 12 of the 15 precincts with the most such tickets were majority black or Latino. The 79th Precinct was number 12.


Cyclist red light tickets are not as readily parsed from the available data, and the NYPD did not respond to a request for the totals since they started differentiating between cyclists and drivers on traffic tickets. On the whole, though, the NYPD has ramped up traffic enforcement since de Blasio has taken office, spurred by the twin mandates of Vision Zero and Broken Windows policing, the signature approach of now-former commissioner Bill Bratton. In 2016, officers wrote 253,600 tickets for disobeying traffic lights, up 33,000 from the year prior, and up more than 47,000 from 2014, the first year that the NYPD began publishing data for those offenses.

Frey said that hearing other people's stories during trips to traffic court drove home the idea that so-called quality of life policing is "part of this big wealth transfer from the poorest people in the city." For instance, there was the sanitation worker headed to work who officers pulled over for violating a no-turn sign at the end of his block the first day it went up.

"It's part of a big ticket quota thing," he said. "It's just really awful that there's no transparency around this stuff."

Josmar Trujillo, an activist with the group Coalition to End Broken Windows, agrees. Trujillo argued that Vision Zero is having a disproportionate impact on low-income communities of color, one that he says affluent white road-safety activists didn't take into account when they pushed for more traffic enforcement.

"When you get into conversations about increasing public safety, just as we saw with stop-and-frisk, just as we saw with the drug war, there's always a public safety rationale, and there's always somebody that's going to be vilified," he said. The intent may be to decrease traffic deaths, he said, but once the NYPD is charged with something, they're going to do it in the same old abusive, discriminatory ways. He cited a 2014 incident where officers bloodied an 84-year-old immigrant to whom they were trying to write a summons for jaywalking as part of a ticketing blitz on the Upper West Side.

"Cops are a hammer," Trujillo said. "They're gonna hammer everything that they see, and you don't want that."

(John Fullard/Flickr)

One trend that Vision Zero and anti-Broken Windows activists can both cheer is the sharp decline of sidewalk cycling summonses under de Blasio. As recently as 2012, the offense was the third most commonly issued criminal summons, with around 25,000 tickets written, and more enforced than speeding. By 2015, as the NYPD shifted its enforcement of sidewalk riding to traffic court, that figure had dropped to less than 3,000, making it the 20th most common. However, since comparable data about the traffic offense isn't published annually, the shift has also made the phenomenon harder to track.

A 2016 NYPD Inspector General's report found that there is no measurable link between low-level quality-of-life enforcement and felony crime rates. Traffic deaths in the city have decreased each year that Vision Zero has been in effect, but the campaign also includes education and road-redesign efforts.

On the individual level, with Frey, the enforcement has had some deterrent effect. After getting slapped with the red-light tickets, he said, "I stopped biking for a long time, because I was like, 'What the hell?...I started biking to save money and then get hit with this $2,500 fine, which basically erases any money I saved on MTA fare for the last three years of living in New York. It was a real bitter pill to swallow."

Now, frustrated with the shoddiness of subway service, he is back on the bike, but he's hesitant.

"I'm half-terrified, honestly. I'm very careful to follow not only red lights, but any [rules of the road]. The thing I pay most attention to is, is there a police officer anywhere."

Pressed about how he approaches traffic signals, he said, "I will double- and triple-check, and if there's nobody around, I probably will go through a red light, yeah."