by Gideon Orion Oliver, David B. Rankin, and Steve Vaccaro
This is an overview of New York City bicycle laws and the manner in which the New York City Police Department (NYPD) has enforced those laws over time. These materials are for information only and cannot substitute for the advice of a knowledgeable lawyer familiar with the circumstances of a particular case. The authors have extensively litigated NYPD misconduct for issuing “bad tickets” to cyclists, and are available for an initial free consultation.
These informational materials describe some aspects of reported increases in law enforcement directed at New York City cyclists beginning in 2004 and continuing through NYPD’s “Operation Safe Cycle” initiated in the latter part of 2010 and continuing in 2011.
Operation Safe Cycle
In late 2010, New York City cyclists began receiving summonses for failure to stop at red lights, reckless operation of a bicycle, and other offenses. In their zeal the NYPD has repeatedly gone beyond enforcing the law as written and are issuing tickets with no apparent basis in the law. As explained below, this represents a continuation of earlier unlawful ticketing practices that have been successfully challenged in court.
The authors are investigating detentions, issuance of summonses or tickets, and prosecutions for the following “bicycle offenses”:
VTL § 1212 – Reckless Driving
VTL § 1234 – Riding on roadway, shoulder, bicycle or in line skate lanes and bicycle or in-line skate paths
34 RCNY § 4-12(p) – Bicycles permitted on both sides of 4O-foot wide one-way roadways
VTL § 1232 – Improper riding of bicycle
VTL § 1235 – Carrying articles on bicycles
VTL § 1238 – Helmets and carrying children
If you have been detained, summonsed/ticketed, or prosecuted for any of these offenses, please contact Rankin & Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For the most part, cyclists on the road have the same rights and the same responsibilities as motorists, but there are two important exceptions to this general rule. The first exception is that laws which specifically state that they are applicable to cyclists supersede laws applicable to motorists. The second are laws which by their nature can have no application to cyclists. A summary of the most important rules as they relate to cyclists is available [here].
Enforcement of Cycling Laws
As lawyers experienced in representing cyclists, we have found that NYPD’s enforcement of traffic laws against cyclists over the years has been inconsistent and in several respects deeply flawed. Cyclists can help protect themselves against arbitrary traffic law enforcement by learning the history and details, explained below.
For many years prior to 2004, NYPD appeared generally to ignore traffic violations by cyclists, except in certain neighborhoods. NYPD training materials say little about how the traffic laws apply to cyclists, but they do state that persons involved in illegal drug sales sometimes use accomplices or lookouts on bicycles. Such training materials may unfortunately create the unwarranted perception among young officers that, at least in certain neighborhoods, persons riding bicycles are likely to be engaged in criminal activity.
Republican National Convention
During the Republication National Convention in 2004, the NYPD viewed a Critical Mass Bicycle ride as both a threat to the City and to the Republicans. Nearly 300 bicyclists were arrested. It was later established that many of those arrested were innocent and entitled to compensation for their illegal arrests and detention.
Beginning in 2004, NYPD began enforcing traffic laws against cyclists, apparently targeting the enforcement against cyclists perceived to be part of monthly “Critical Mass” group bicycle rides. Litigation against NYPD in 2004 revealed that NYPD was improperly enforcing two laws against cyclists. First, NYPD used a law prohibiting leaving “abandoned property” in the street as a justification for seizing bicycles securely locked to street fixtures, even in cases where the owners were at hand and offering to remove the bikes. Second, NYPD improperly enforced Vehicle and Traffic Law 1234 against cyclists—even though this law does not apply within New York City. (VTL § 1234 prohibits cyclists from riding on the left-hand side of the road or more than two abreast, among other things.) A federal judge ruled that NYPD had violated cyclists’ constitutional rights by confiscating their bicycles as “abandoned property,” and a senior lawyer for the NYPD admitted in 2004 that enforcement of VTL § 1234 within New York City was improper and had occurred by mistake.
Initial Constitutional Challenges
Following the Republican National Convention, NYPD continued its practice of arresting group cyclists for disorderly conduct and “parading without a permit.” Numerous arrestees brought constitutional challenges to their arrests and ultimately were successful. By early 2006, NYPD largely ended its practice of arresting group cyclists.
Targeted Traffic Law Enforcement, 2006-2009
After 2004, NYPD targeted traffic law enforcement at cyclists perceived to be participating in Critical Mass and certain other “political” group bike rides. A lawsuit was brought in 2007 charging that the NYPD was violating cyclists’ First Amendment rights by targeting them for enforcement based on their political views and associations.
While this suit ultimately proved unsuccessful, it brought to light the fact that NYPD officers assigned to police group bike rides were provided with “cheat sheets” listing summonses to be issued to cyclists. These cheat sheets improperly list VTL § 1234 as a valid law applicable to New York City cyclists. NYPD admitted that it had continued to issue numerous invalid VTL § 1234 tickets to cyclists after 2004. NYPD also admitted that officers had issued numerous tickets to cyclists under 34 RCNY § 4-12(p)(3) for failure to keep to the left or right of the roadway on narrow east-west side streets and two-way streets—even though that rule only applies on one-way roadways wider than 39 feet. Notably, the “cheat sheet” in use during the time those summonses were issued failed to explain that Section 4-12(p)(3) only applied on narrower, one-way roadways.
Action for Damages
In 2007, lawsuits were filed by approximately 100 cyclists that NYPD had arrested, detained, and/or issued improper summonses to during the period of 2004 through 2007. Rather than face a jury trial in these cases, NYPD agreed to settle them collectively for a payment of approximately $1 million.