Justice Denied in T.L.C. Courts

There is a scene in the movie The Verdict where Paul Newman, playing attorney Frank Galvin,

insists to Charlotte Rampling that the idea of a law court is not to dispense

justice. The court, Mr. Newman’s character says, exists to give people “a chance at justice.” But even in this ideal,

the New York City Taxi & Limousine Commission has a problem, because most

cabbies believe that in the T.L.C.’s courts, they don’t stand a chance.

A year ago, State Supreme Court Justice Stanley Parness

ordered the T.L.C. to open its courts-which the agency had treated as private

property-to the public. Judges who work for the T.L.C.  hear 80,000 cases a year, the vast majority

initiated by the commission’s own inspectors (just a few are started by

passengers). Justice Parness’ order, which came at my urging, cast a harsh

light on the T.L.C., exposing the agency and its kangaroo courts as biased,

corrupt and rotten.

Take the case of Richard Travers Smith: On March 14, he

arrived at the Marriott Marquis hotel and joined a line of taxis waiting at the

cabstand. Soon, the doorman whistled him forward. But before he could reach the

carriage entrance, a would-be passenger rapped on his rear window. Mr. Smith

gestured that he was already responding to the doorman’s hail; the man nodded

and backed away.

A moment later, another man banged on his window. This man,

George Gernan, carried the badge of a T.L.C. inspector. Mr. Gernan demanded Mr.

Smith’s hack license and confiscated his taxi. According to Mr. Gernan-and to

no one else-Mr. Smith had “refused” the other passenger, who was, incidentally,

well-dressed and white. Mr. Gernan suspended Mr. Smith on the spot and started

the process for revoking his license altogether.

A federal judge in

Brooklyn, Raymond Dearie, already had ruled that suspensions without hearings

are unconstitutional. But for months-even after the judge had issued his

ruling-the T.L.C. continued its practice of giving due process a Bronx cheer.

Cabbies tend to be recent immigrants unaware of their

rights. But Mr. Smith, 69 and retired from owning a security business, knew

his, and petitioned Judge Dearie for emergency relief. The judge signed a

temporary restraining order mandating the return of Mr. Smith’s hack license.

“We don’t do this in this country,” Judge Dearie said, and

normally we don’t. In fact, the so-called refusal case was so weak that T.L.C.

chairwoman Diane McGrath-McKechnie personally ordered her judges to dismiss

it-though not permanently-to avoid the shame of going forward. Still, the

T.L.C. was convinced that Mr. Smith was guilty-if not of refusing a fare, then

of something else.

Even as Judge Dearie called their conduct “outrageous,”

T.L.C. officials announced that they had reviewed Mr. Smith’s record and

determined that they should have revoked his license months before. Somehow,

though, they forgot !

According to T.L.C. lawyers, Mr. Smith had accumulated an

excess of “points” by committing previous offenses. What had Mr. Smith done? On

two prior occasions, T.L.C. inspectors had stopped Mr. Smith at checkpoints.

Finding nothing else, they cited him for failure to make proper entries on his

“trip sheet.”

Trip-sheet violations carry no points. Mr. Smith believed he

could plead guilty and pay the fines, a total of $40. The T.L.C., however,

demanded his presence and later suspended him for “failure to cooperate”-this

despite the fact that the agency’s own rules say a personal appearance is not

required in trip-sheet cases.

Mr. Smith agreed to plead guilty to the trip-sheet offenses

and the noncooperation charges as well. A T.L.C. judge signed off on the plea.

The judge, of all people, should have known that the noncooperation charge was

bogus. Still, he tacked on an additional $400 in fines, plus points, though at

least Mr. Smith had his license restored and was able to return to work.

But after Mr. Smith sued them, the T.L.C. took another look.

It rediscovered the since-forgotten noncooperation charges and the points,

which, they say, mandate the revocation of his license-retroactively, no less.

In The Trial by

Franz Kafka, Joseph K. finds himself locked in a judicial system that is

convinced he must be guilty of something-anything. If he wasn’t guilty, the

prevailing wisdom goes, he wouldn’t be on trial. Mr. Smith finds himself in a

similar trap, with only the federal courts offering a way out.

The city’s yellow-cab and

livery-car drivers are all too aware of the T.L.C.’s arbitrary, even vindictive

brand of justice. But the agency escapes notice because the cabbies are

voiceless and each of the T.L.C.’s many offenses appears small. But the

offenses pile up. Ms. McGrath-McKechnie is on her way out; she will do nothing.

Isn’t it time for Mayor Giuliani to step in and give justice a chance?

Terry Golway will

return to this spot in several weeks.