On Feb. 1, Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance decided his office would no longer prosecute turnstile jumpers. NYPD has protested, claiming that fare beating stops often lead to the arrest of more serious criminals, citing the farebeating arrest of a man who police discovered was wanted for murder in Virginia. Andrew Albert, head of the New York City Transit Riders Council and an MTA board member, commented, “This is why fare evasion arrests matter. You potentially stop some very dangerous people from entering the subways.” Though there is the potential of arresting those who have committed more serious crimes, this potential does not justify an unjust method of policing.
The decision is part of Vance’s stronger push to end the criminal prosecution of low level nonviolent offenses. Since most arrested for farebeating are low-income and minority residents, for whom the consequences of jail time and an arrest record can be catastrophic, the DA’s office feels the punishment is too extreme. The volume of farebeating cases also unnecessarily drains the DA’s resources.
Turnstile stops are not intended to monitor the subway system. They are a means of monitoring the entire city, above and below ground. However, the ends do not justify the means. Thinking back to Albert’s comment, I’m sure that if the police randomly pulled more than 8,000 New Yorkers off the street, they could potentially find some very dangerous people, yet no one would consider that to be just policing. These stops only serve to make arbitrary searches justifiable. Similar to the more controversial practice of stop-and-frisk, these stops disproportionately affect minorities. Turnstile stops are carried out at the discretion of the officers, and the possibility of a safer city is not their only incentive to arrest. In other words, police arrests are not always motivated by discrimination so much as economic gain.
Vance’s decision mitigates harm done to farebeaters, but that is not enough. To be clear, Vance’s decision still allows police to stop fare beaters and search them, and if they find weapons or contraband, they are entitled to arrest. If we remember Floyd v. City of New York, the manner in which the NYPD practiced stop-and-frisk was ruled unreasonable and a violation of the Fourth Amendment. Thus, on what grounds is searching a farebeater reasonable? Is poverty proof of delinquency? Vance’s decision will likely lower the number of arrests and the number of low level offenders in jail, but in the end, those low income and minority residents will still be subjected to more intense police scrutiny, just because they can’t afford a ticket.
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A version of this appeared in the Monday, Feb. 26 print edition. Email Bix Willis Komita Moussa at [email protected].