Four New Yorkers claimed in a lawsuit on Thursday that undercover Taxi and Limousine Commission officers entrap people of color as part of a crackdown on illegal cab drivers at JFK and LaGuardia airports.
In the lawsuit filed in Brooklyn federal court, the four men allege that undercover agents from the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission posing as desperate visitors stranded at the airports “begged and groveled” for rides.
Picking up passengers for a fare without a TLC license is a violation of the city’s street hail law, which was created to protect the interests of legal cabs and deter human trafficking. Street hail violations have a minimum penalty of $1,500 for a first violation.
“The TLC’s sting operations primarily target people of color, immigrants or people with limited English proficiency, many of whom, like the plaintiffs, have just dropped off their family members or friends at the airport,” reads the suit, which seeks class-action status.
Belinda Luu, an attorney with Mobilization for Justice who filed the suit, said the organization has received roughly 150 calls about cases like these in recent years. Nearly all of the complaints came from people of color, she said.
Stanford Miller, who is a Black Jamaican American and a plaintiff in the suit, said he dropped off his family members at JFK Airport in August 2021 when an older woman who was “struggling with her luggage” approached him for a ride to another part of Queens.
“I felt compassion for her and agreed to drive her since I was heading back there anyway,” said Miller, who does not work as a taxi or for-hire vehicle driver, in a statement.
The woman then disclosed that she was a TLC officer and issued him a $1,500 fine, Miller said.
“The city is claiming to operate these undercover practices and fines under the guise of public safety,” said Luu, the attorney. “But in reality, the city is just making money off of working-class people.”
While entrapment is a defense in criminal court, it’s not a defense for a violation of the city’s street hail law, Luu said.
TLC officers have issued roughly 5,600 tickets for street hail violations at JFK and LaGuardia airports since 2019, Luu said. She estimates they’re primarily derived from undercover operations like these, resulting in roughly $8.4 million in fines imposed by the city.
“It's a very lucrative revenue source for the TLC,” Luu said.
TLC spokesperson Jason Kersten said the agency will review the suit.
“We take the safety of passengers and drivers seriously, and our undercover airport enforcement operations are designed to ensure that only TLC-licensed drivers and vehicles following established rules may pick up passengers for pay," Kersten said.
George Numfor, another plaintiff who recently emigrated from Cameroon, claims TLC officers targeted him at JFK last March. Numfor was an Uber driver at the time, but did not have a TLC license. He was only authorized to drop off passengers in New York City when he picked them up outside the five boroughs.
He said he’d just dropped off a passenger from Westchester County at the airport when a man approached his Hyundai Santa Fe for a ride to LaGuardia Airport. Numfor said he refused.
“Then another gentleman walked towards the driver's side and presented his badge and asked for my ID,” Numfor said.
The TLC officers' aluminum badges confused Numfor, who thought they were NYPD officers. “I was very scared,” Numfor said.
Numfor was supporting his three kids in the Bronx on his driving salary – which came out to $35,000 that year, he said.
Numfor said the officers told him he seemed like “a nice guy” and encouraged him to fight the ticket. He eventually paid $500 to settle the case, fearing the ticket would endanger his application for a TLC license, he said.
TLC officers are not required to record these types of encounters, said Luu.
“There's really no objective record of what happened, and that's part of the reason it's so difficult to challenge the violation at a hearing,” Luu said. “Many people end up settling because they're worried about the risk of a license suspension or a $1,500 fine.”
This story has been updated to include comment from the Taxi and Limousine Commission and to clarify the estimated amount of fines imposed through the TLC's undercover operations at airports.