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Testimony from the Street Vendor Project before the City Council “ Examining the Operations of

Testimony from the Street Vendor Project before the City Council Examining the Operations of NYCs Summons Courts

December 15, 2014

My name is Matthew Shapiro and I am a staff attorney at the Street Vendor Project at the Urban Justice Center. The Street Vendor Project is a membership-based organization with more than 1,800 members who sell food, merchandise, and artwork from trucks, carts, and tables across the City. We organize vendors to make their voices heard and provide legal representation in civil and criminal hearings for a variety of offenses. Most of our representation takes place at the Environmental Control Board, where most street vendor summonses are adjudicated, but we also represented vendors at the summons part of the criminal courts.

Defendants at the summons part are not treated with respect from the moment they enter the building. Defendants often have to wait in the courtroom for hours, only to have the court spend less than ten seconds on their case. The summonses note that defendants have to show up at 9:30 AM on the date of their hearing, but the court does not even start until 10:00 or 10:30 AM. I know, as an attorney, that it is better to show up later when it is less crowded in order to minimize wait times, but other defendants have no way of knowing this. The court should stagger the appearance time in order to provide for a more streamlined schedule. The courts also do not provide any information about rescheduling a hearing date if the defendant is not able to attend on the date that the issuing officer chooses. There should be a better scheduling mechanism to take into account the availability of the defendant.

Defendants do not even have a chance to meet with their court-appointed attorneys before they see the judge. This is at the least unfair to the defendants and at most a violation of their constitutional right to counsel. More funds should be made available to either provide more court-appointed attorneys or better resources so they can do their job more effectively. To no avail, the Street Vendor Project has also asked that street vendor summonses be scheduled for a single day of the week, so that we can be there to represent our members.

Furthermore, many hearing officers at the summons part are ill equipped to handle the cases that are before them. For example, the rules and regulations for street vendors can be complicated and a lot of the times the judges are not even sure what the law is or which laws apply to general vendors and which laws apply to food vendors. These judges should be better trained in the areas of the law so they are able to fairly decide these cases. The judges also need

to show more respect to the individuals who are appearing before them. Once I witnessed a judge was unable to pronounce the name of an Asian defendant. The judge told him he should change his name to “John Smith.” Whether or not this was said as a joke, it was disrespectful. And that is just one example.

The judges at the summons courts do not seem to be accountable to anyone. Whether or not they dismiss a case depends not on what the law actually is, but how they feel about a given case or defendant. There are no written decisions and the judges often give no basis at all for the decisions they make. This differs from the Environmental Control Board, where at least we receive written decisions that we can appeal. Many defendants feel pressured into pleading guilty because they are not informed about the advantages or consequences of taking the case to trial.

Finally, we appreciate that the City Council is examining what happens at the courthouse. But it is important to remember that the cases heard at the summons courts are low level offenses that are enforced by the NYPD, on the street, disproportionately on immigrants and people of color. Examples of such offenses are reckless skateboarding, unlicensed vending, and being in a park after it is closed. The City Council can do its part to change or repeal these laws and pressure the NYPD to end the broken windows system of policing that disproportionately affects New York City’s most vulnerable communities.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify here today.