The dark side of the TLC taxi court system
I had a little bit more complicated interaction with the Taxi and Limousine Commission court than Josh Barro.
Back in May, I was riding my bike home from work when a cab driver got really upset when I moved out of the bike lane to pass another cyclist, blocking him from accelerating quickly toward the impending red light.
He came at me in his cab, pinning me between the parked cars and his (still moving) vehicle while yelling at me. There was, in the end, about two inches of space between me and being crushed under his car.
I filed a complaint with the TLC (you can do this by going online or by calling 311), and a couple of weeks ago found myself sitting in the nondescript entryway of the TLC court in the Financial District. Being as I was almost killed, it felt right to be getting justice. But I also spent two hours listening to TLC lawyers coax guilty pleas out of confused, uninformed cab drivers. Here’s what I learned from the experience:
- TLC court exists to regulate its drivers, so when you file a complaint you get a lawyer, who represents the TLC on your behalf. The driver is not entitled to representation.
- There are a few defense lawyers who lurk around the elevator banks of the court floor (where most of the deals get done, oddly). They will represent drivers at the meetings for a hefty fee, considering the length of these proceedings average about 5 minutes.
- The TLC lawyers were all young and treated most of the drivers with respect, but as representatives of the agency they have minimum offers they can make to the drivers, and aren’t allowed to answer a lot of the questions drivers ask about procedure and their rights.
- Many of the punishments include points against a driver’s TLC license in addition to a monetary fine. If the driver accrues a certain amount of points, their license can be suspended for 30 days or more, meaning they have no income for a full month.
- While I was there, a particularly distressed driver was facing something like a $200 minimum fine and 2 points against his license for taking the Williamsburg Bridge instead of the Manhattan Bridge, which his passenger had asked him to take. He explained to the lawyer that the Brooklyn Bridge was closed that day and there was gridlock all around the Manhattan Bridge, so the Williamsburg Bridge had actually been the better option, which he explained to the passenger. But no matter, he had no recourse.
- The lawyers had to explain to more than one driver that the job was customer-service oriented, and, essentially, the TLC operates under the assumption that the customer is always right. this principle seemed to be doubly true if the driver had not hired a defense lawyer.
- The true cost to the cabbie is higher than the sticker price. The average cab driver makes about $30,000 per year — somewhere between $50 and $125 per day after expenses. A $100 fine, plus the opportunity cost of going to court (let’s estimate $25 for two hours spent going to the TLC), is about equal to a (good) full day’s earnings. It’s more if they take advantage of the option to postpone their hearing after the first meeting with the TLC and have to come back, or if they hire a lawyer. And, from the half dozen or so settlements I was witness to, most fines are at minimum $200-300.
- If something serious does happen between you and a driver, show up in person. The driver who almost mowed me down was made to pay a $1000 fine. The judge denied him an extension because she was impressed I showed up in person (you can also testify over the phone) and didn’t want to make me come again. I get the idea administrative courts don’t get a lot of voluntary visitors.
None of this is to say I disagree with Josh’s decision to take action against a driver who wouldn’t take him home. But it is important to ask yourself whether your annoyance with your cab driver is worth one, two, even three days of his or her pay.