(Ailsa Chang -- New York, WNYC) The city has settled a federal lawsuit charging that the New York City police department has been unlawfully detaining, questioning and searching passengers for weapons in livery cabs as part of a city livery cab inspection program.
The two passengers who filed the lawsuit last May, Terrence Battle and Munir Pujara, are both men of color. They alleged they were pulled out of their cabs and searched for weapons even though the officers did not suspect either them of criminal activity.
Neither of them was charged with any offense after their encounters.
As part of the settlement, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly has committed to retraining officers and instructing them that passengers riding in livery cars participating in the Taxi/Livery Robbery Inspection Program, or TRIP, can only be removed on certain conditions: if the officer fears for his safety, or if he suspects the passenger is armed or has committed a violent crime.
Kelly issued a new operations order commanding all officers to follow these rules. Although the department issued a similar operations order detailing this policy about a decade ago, criminal justice advocates said too few officers heeded the rules.
"The problem was no one knew about that operations order and there had never been any training on it, so police officers around the city mistakenly believed that they could frisk and search passengers without suspicion," said Chris Dunn of the New York Civil Liberties Union, which represented both plaintiffs.
Dunn said they interviewed more than a dozen livery car drivers who claimed they were getting stopped routinely and their passengers were getting pulled out without any reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.
TRIP is meant to protect livery drivers from crimes perpetrated by passengers, especially robberies. Drivers who voluntarily participate in the program consent to being pulled over by a police officer at any point to check on their safety. Participants display a decal in their windows stating, "This vehicle may be stopped and visually inspected by the police at any time to ensure driver’s safety."
The plaintiffs didn't challenge the actual vehicle stops in their lawsuit -- only the manner in which they were treated after the officers pulled the livery cabs over.
In addition to promising the retraining of officers, the city paid Battle and Pujara $10,000 each.
City lawyers called the TRIP program "entirely constitutional" and noted that the program itself was not challenged in the lawsuit.
“The police department remains committed to ensuring that the program is run correctly and to ensure the continued safety of livery cab drivers and their passengers,” said Mark Zuckerman of the city's Law Department.
Dunn said, as with the the stopping and frisking of pedestrians, TRIP resulted in unwarranted frisks and searches that disproportionate impacted minorities.
"Yellow cabs just aren't available in the outer boroughs, the communities where blacks and Latinos primarily live," said Dunn. "Really the targets -- and the victims -- of this practice wer blacks and Latinos."