(CN) – The New York City Transit Authority cannot ban the public from attending hearings on transit violations, a federal judge in Manhattan ruled. U.S. District Judge Richard J. Sullivan said the hearings “walk, talk, and squawk” like criminal and civil trials, and are not exempt from the First Amendment’s right of access.
He issued a preliminary injunction barring further enforcement of the agency’s access policy after the New York Civil Liberties Union sued the transit authority.
The transit authority controls the mass transportation system in New York City, including thousands of subways and buses.
When police ticket riders for allegedly violating the transit authority’s rules of conduct, officers have the discretion to process the charges in New York Criminal Court or the agency’s Transit Adjudication Bureau. The TAB, in Brooklyn, holds more than 22,000 hearings per year. Common violations include fare evasion and vandalism.
The TAB bars the public from attending hearings unless given permission by the defendant.
The TAB is not a “court” under New York law, Judge Sullivan noted, but it shares jurisdiction with the criminal court for transit violations and resembles a court in most respects.
A respondent has the right to a hearing, the right to be represented by an attorney, the right to cross-examine the issuing police officer, the right to produce documents and witnesses, and the right to appeal.
But the public was not allowed to attend TAB hearings, even though they can attend transit hearings held at criminal court.
The transit authority argued that many people want to maintain their privacy at the hearings. A senior hearing officer for the TAB cited examples of respondents who claimed to have mental illnesses or a medical disease, including one person with AIDS.
The judge remained unconvinced, saying defendants in a civil or criminal suit would also prefer to be able to choose if their cases were made public.
“Such a desire, however, does not suffice to defeat the First Amendment right of access,” Judge Sullivan wrote.
He noted that the 2nd Circuit has not yet addressed whether the right of access applies to administrative proceedings, but said “the same ‘logic’ that would favor the right of access in the context of a formally styled criminal or civil proceeding applies in equal force in the context of a TAB Hearing, however labeled.”
“This ruling unlocks the doors that hid from the public view tens of thousands of hearings each year,” said Christopher Dunn, NYCLU’s lead attorney in the case. “Moving forward, the NYCLU will monitor these hearings so we can make sure they are conducted fairly and so we can track NYPD enforcement activity in the transit system.”
The civil liberties union said the hearings may shed light on police conduct in the city’s mass transportation system. According to the NYCLU, the number of riders stopped and questioned by NYPD officers spiked from 2,474 in 2003 to 38,552 in 2007.
Eighty-eight percent of those stopped in the subway system are black or Latino.