By Anna Quinn
A few years ago, Brooklyn veteran David Evans got something strange in the mail — a notice that the MTA would be taking hundreds of dollars from his tax returns to pay for tickets from nearly 20 years ago.
Even stranger, Evans said, was that he had never heard about these tickets before, which dated as far back as 1999 and seemed to be for low-level violations such as smoking on the subway.
But, even so, the 59-year-old was told a judge had already decided he would have to pay them and would soon find out about others on his record that he would need to pay, including decades of interest and fees. His debt to the transit authority racked up to nearly $2,000.
“I never got to see a judge, I never got to have a hearing,” said Evans, who now lives in Midwood. “I can’t confirm any of these tickets.”
Evans is among two New Yorkers — both of whom are formerly homeless— who are suing the city’s Transit Authority after their wages or tax returns were seized to pay for tickets as far back as 1997.
The tactic, the lawsuit claims, preys on the city’s most vulnerable residents, especially given the bureaucratic web “straight out of a Kafka novel” they encounter when they tried to defend themselves, said Susan Shin, the legal director with the New Economy Project, one of the organizations filing the lawsuit.
“This is really a racial and economic issue,” Shin said. “When you look at who is being the most harmed by the MTA, you are talking about the lowest-income New Yorkers, New Yorkers of color and New Yorkers that are currently or formerly homeless.
“Even though we’re talking about relatively small amounts for the MTA…it’s a huge deal to lose that kind of money (for low-income New Yorkers). It can mean the difference from paying for basic living expenses, and not being able to,” Shin continued.
Evans and the other plaintiff, Nathaniel Robinson, of East Tremont, still have yet to see the details of these alleged tickets, even though they’ve each visited the Transit Adjudication Bureau repeatedly with their lawyers to ask to see the records.
The bureau has either told them that the documents no longer exist, that they cannot be released or that they need to pay $10 per document to see them — upwards of $400 in Evans’ case, Shin said. There are no waivers for those who cannot afford to pay the fee.
Evans said he not only can’t afford that amount, but until he retired in July, wouldn’t have been able to take the days off of work it required to repeatedly visit the bureau.
He needs the details about the tickets, though, to even prove that they were in fact issued to him. The alleged violations are from so long ago he can’t be sure, but he believes some might have been a case of identity theft.
Most of the violations are from a time that he was staying in homeless shelters, where it was common to have his ID stolen.
“I can’t prove it, but I can’t prove that it is me either,” he said. “It’s not like these were yesterday — show me something to allow me to defend myself.”
Shin said the organizations filing the lawsuit — including the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, the Drinker Biddle law firm and the Barbara McDowell Foundation — haven’t determined exactly how many times the MTA has used this tactic, but they believe it has affected thousands of people.
Other New Yorkers have already called into the New Economy Project’s hotline to say they’ve experienced something similar. It seems the transit authority is using tax refunds as a way to get around some of the state’s protections on freezing bank accounts or garnishing wages, she said.
“Using tax refunds is an extremely aggressive way to collect money,” she said. “If they’re going after tax refunds, the people whose tax refunds they’re taking have no other money to spare.”
Evans said if it wasn’t for the help of his lawyers, he likely wouldn’t have realized there was anything he could do to try and get his money back. He hopes his experience can help others like him realize if the same thing is being done to them.
“You’re telling an average person that’s struggling that we’re going to take your minimal tax returns and use those to supplement the MTA’s income,” he said. “I expect better of my government when I get back on my feet than to say, ‘You owe me from when you were down.'”
Anyone who thinks they are in a situation similar to Evans and Robinson’s can call New Economy Project’s NYC Financial Justice Hotline at 212-925-4929; it’s open 12 pm – 2 pm Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday.