On The Front Lines
Rejecting Gov’t Claims That Cabbies Have No Right to Privacy, Rutherford Urges Court to Declare NYC’s Surveillance of Taxi Cabs Unconstitutional
NEW YORK, N.Y. — Rejecting claims by New York City government officials that taxi drivers have virtually no right of privacy while on the job, attorneys for The Rutherford Institute have asked a federal appeals court to declare unconstitutional the practice of requiring taxi cab drivers to attach GPS devices to their taxis in order to have their movements tracked. In filing a reply brief in Hassan El-Nahal v. David Yassky, Institute attorneys are calling on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit to follow the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling that warrantless GPS surveillance of vehicles violates the Fourth Amendment’s bar on unreasonable searches and seizures, which would thereby render the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission’s surveillance of taxi drivers an unconstitutional violation of drivers’ Fourth Amendment rights.
“As the Supreme Court has recognized, the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits the government from attaching tracking devices to our vehicles without first securing a search warrant,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State. “No matter how you look at it, this surveillance system put in place by a government agency not only violates the rights of taxi drivers to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures by government agents, it also invades the privacy of any passengers traveling with them.”
In 2007, New York’s Taxi and Limousine Commission, an agency of the City of New York, mandated that all New York City medallion taxis be equipped with a Taxi Technology System (TTS), which includes a GPS tracking device. The device transmits information to the Commission, revealing the taxi’s location, when a new trip is initiated, the number of passengers, the point where the trip is terminated, and the fare for the trip, among other information. Called on to justify the surveillance system, the Commission assured taxi drivers and the public that the system would not be used to track drivers but would be used for “customer service improvements,” for regulatory analysis, assisting in locating passengers’ lost property, and to eliminate the need for drivers to complete handwritten trip sheets for each fare.
However, in 2010, the Commission, relying almost exclusively on tracking information provided by the TTS, began a campaign to prosecute taxi drivers for alleged overcharging of customers and indicated it would seek to revoke the licenses of up to 2,300 taxi drivers. In January 2012, taxi driver Hassan El-Nahal was accused of deliberately overcharging passengers on 10 occasions and the Commission demanded he pay a $900 fine in order to avoid proceedings to revoke his license. When El-Nahal refused to settle, the Commission carried through with its threat and initially obtained a decision revoking El-Nahal’s license based solely upon TTS tracking data. However, after several appeals the revocation was reversed because the Commission could not show that El-Nahal intended to overcharge passengers.
In the lawsuit seeking relief for the injuries suffered by El-Nahal as a result of his prosecution, Institute attorneys allege that the GPS surveillance which was the sole basis for the prosecution constitutes an illegal search under the Fourth Amendment. Institute attorneys point to the unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision in United States v. Jones, which held that police must get a search warrant before using GPS technology to track criminal suspects. New York attorney Daniel L. Ackman is assisting The Rutherford Institute in its defense of the taxi drivers’ Fourth Amendment rights.