MANHATTAN (CN) - Boosted by a recent Supreme Court decision, New York City cab drivers claim warrantless GPS tracking exposed thousands of drivers to bogus prosecutions and license revocations.
Lead plaintiffs Koffi Aka and Robert Carniol filed a federal class action against New York City, its Taxi and Limousine Commission, and commission Chairman David Yassky, the leader of the 9-member board.
New York City Law Department Senior Counsel Diana Murray defended the legality of its GPS tracking in an email statement to Courthouse News.
"* The courts have long recognized that 4th Amendment privacy protections are not applicable to certain highly regulated industries such as the pawn shop and taxi industries," Murray wrote. "TLC only receives GPS data from taxicabs when the driver is on-duty - not when the driver is off-duty. Also, except for credit and debit card information, data collected from the GPS devices reflects exactly the same information that cab drivers have long been required to document in handwritten trip sheets."
The cabbies' 23-page class action cites the Supreme Court's January ruling that police violated a suspected drug trafficker's 4th Amendment rights by placing a GPS device in his car.
The cabbies claim that the Taxi and Limousine Commission falsely prosecutes cab drivers for overcharging riders, based on GPS-gathered information.
"In many cases, including Mr. Carniol's, the TLC ultimately revoked hack licenses solely on the basis of GPS tracking evidence, without even a single complaining witnesses complaining or testifying against them," the complaint states.
The class claims that in 2007 the Taxi and Limousine Commission forced all New York City medallion-holders to install GPS devices as part of a Taxi Technology System, required that every cab transmit license information, location of each trip, number of passengers, metered fare and distance to the commission.
"Thus the TLC requires that all taxis and taxi drivers continuously transmit to the TLC or its agents by use of GPS their locations at all times," the complaint states. "While taxis must have this technology installed, nothing in the TLC's rules permits (or even mentions) the TLC to use GPS data to prosecute taxi drivers even criminally or administratively."
The New York Taxi Workers Alliance challenged the new technology in 2007 in a federal privacy lawsuit. The TLC beat the charges, in part, by assuring the court and the public that it would not use the GPS to track individual drivers, according to the complaint.
But the cabbies say the TLC changed its tune after it snared cabdriver Wasim Khalid Cheema for charging Rate 4 (out-of-city) fares for local rides. After finishing the Cheema investigation, the TLC scoured its 42,000-vehicle database for evidence of similar frauds, according to the complaint.
On March 12, 2010, a Friday night, the TLC told the press that its broader investigation had uncovered an $8.3 million scam implicating more than 33,000 drivers, based almost entirely on GPS data.
"Even after the TLC publicized the alleged Rate 4 problem and it was widely reported in print, radio and television, just 'a couple' of alleged victims came forward," the complaint states. "Nor has the TLC ever claimed any exigent circumstances that would have made it impossible or even inconvenient to secure a search warrant."
The cabbies say the TLC quickly retreated from its allegations, which were widely reported, including in The New York Times.
"Just 10 days later, however, the TLC admitted that the account it had aggressively marketed was wildly inaccurate," the complaint states.
However, "Rather than accept responsibility for the errors, [TLC Chairman Matthew] Daus claimed, 'The numbers that the press reported' - which were precisely the numbers the TLC announced - were misleading. ...
"While the TLC had now conceded its initial numbers were wrong by a factor of six in terms of trips and incorrect by a factor of eight in terms of dollar value, the media still presented the 'scam' as pervasive," according to the complaint.
Undeterred, the TLC pursued its "prosecution offensive," according to the complaint.
"The May 14  press release, apparently certain that its restated numbers were correct, outlined the TLC's prosecution strategy," the complaint states. "The agency announced it was 'in the process of initiating license revocation proceedings against taxi drivers who were identified with 50 or more overcharges. Drivers with evidence of between 10 and 49 overcharges would have the option to surrender their TLC license or face fines ranging from $1,000 to $5,000. Drivers with less than 10 overcharges would be reviewed on a case by case basis.'"
Plaintiff Aka said a prosecutor sent him a letter on Dec. 7, 2011, accusing him of more than 40 overcharges.
Carniol said he was accused of 91 overcharges, though there were no witnesses against him and no evidence of fraud in his income.
The cabbies say the TLC has sent letters demanding that more than 2,000 drivers enter settlements, and has claimed that its dragnet reaches more than 21,000 drivers.
The TLC said in an email that 257 drivers have entered into plea agreements to surrender their licenses so far.
Aka and Carniol demand punitive damages for the class and an order declaring warrantless GPS tracking of cab drivers unconstitutional.
They are represented by Daniel Ackman.