Cy Vance’s Tale of Two Cities: Bus Fare Evaders Go To Court; Subway Scofflaws Go Free

As a politician, Manhattan DA Cy Vance has put forward a great bill to hold drivers accountable. As a prosecutor, he has failed to do so consistently. Photo: Adam Schultz
As a politician, Manhattan DA Cy Vance has put forward a great bill to hold drivers accountable. As a prosecutor, he has failed to do so consistently. Photo: Adam Schultz

It was the best of Cy Vance. It was the worst of Cy Vance.

The Manhattan District Attorney, who earned kudos last year by announcing he would no longer prosecute most cases of subway fare evasion because arrests seemed to be racially biased, revealed over the weekend that he has no problem prosecuting fare beaters on buses — even though the above-ground suspects are also disproportionately people of color.

The revelation came on Saturday, after a public defender tweeted about a client who was facing 15 days in jail — courtesy of Vance — for not paying for his bus ride in Manhattan. That’s when Danny Frost, Vance’s spokesperson, responded on Twitter that the DA’s “decline to prosecute policy is subway fare evasion, not bus.”

How come? Vance isn’t talking (though Frost said the case in question involved the prosecution of a recidivist pickpocketer). But if the DA is prosecuting only bus fare evaders, he’s guilty of perpetuating a racially biased form of law enforcement that he himself said he opposes. Indeed, earlier this year, Vance touted his 96-percent drop in subway fare evasion prosecutions last year as evidence that his strategy is more fair.

“The criminal justice system is not a collection agency, and when it acts like one, it criminalizes poverty and leaves New Yorkers with lifelong records that ruin their chances to escape poverty,” Vance said in the congratulatory press release.

Oh, bus scofflaws? You get swept up in Vance’s collection agency.

It’s a tale of two Manhattans. Before his “decline-to-prosecute” policy went into effect underground, Vance had correctly targeted fare evasion arrests as the wrong way to deal with the issue, citing NYPD data that black and Latino individuals made up almost 90 percent of subway fare beating arrests in 2019. Frost himself said last year that the MTA’s focus on fare evasion continued a “shameful legacy of scapegoating low-income New Yorkers.”

But on the bus, where the average commuter’s income is $28,455, which is lower than that of subway riders, and 75 percent of the commuters are people of color, the district attorney is continuing the same policy he and his spokesman repudiated.

So what’s going on? Streetsblog reached out to Frost who, this time, did not bring up race or fairness.

“In bus fare evasion cases, a bus driver is present and is responsible for interacting with riders and collecting their fares, which is a different dynamic with different implications for safety,” Frost said. “We do not prosecute this very frequently, and when we do, our standard offer for a first- or second arrest is an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal, or a plea to a non-criminal violation with a non-jail disposition.”

Frost also shared data with Streetsblog that shows that Vance’s office arraigned roughly 70 people for bus fare evasion over the past three years. But he also said that virtually all people arrested for bus fare evasion are prosecuted. Far more people are arrested by the NYPD for subway fare evasion, but Vance has declined to prosecute most of them.

Activist Janos Marton, who on Tuesday said he would run against Vance in 2021, told Streetsblog that it was “curious” Vance’s office still prosecutes bus fare evasion in light of the subway fare evasion policy. “While people should pay their fares, arresting people instead of ticketing them is excessive, wastes police resources, and risks discriminatory enforcement,” Marton said.

And Assembly Member Dan Quart, who’s also considering challenging Vance in 2021, also blasted Vance’s bus fare evasion policy.

“Prosecuting poor people for theft of services for $2.75 is nothing short of the criminalization of poverty that perpetuates harm against low income communities and people of color,” Quart said in a statement. “There is no justifiable, public safety reason for the Manhattan DA to prosecute fare evasion, be that on the subway or the bus, and I fail to see how prosecuting one but not the other makes any sense.”

Quart also criticized Vance’s recent decision to spend criminal forfeiture funds on anti-subway fare evasion efforts. “Furthermore, the $40 million campaign to combat fare evasion, funded by criminal forfeiture funds, is a colossal waste of resources. Instead of expanding a city program like Fare Fares, which provides half priced MetroCards for low income New Yorkers, the Manhattan DA has once again chosen a more punitive approach,” Quart said.

One criminal justice reformer said the policy is an example of having to look past the headlines of any bold promises from a district attorney.

“This policy really puts into question, are they truly believers that the DA stop stop criminalizing our most vulnerable residents?” said VOCAL-NY Executive Director Alyssa Aguilera. “It’s confusing that they would make that distinction, because when you can’t afford $2.75 to get on the subway, you can’t afford it to get on the bus either,” Aguirre said.

Aguilera also criticized the bail and sentence request that drew the response from Vance’s office. “This is a completely outsized response to a person that’s too poor to afford to get on a bus. It’s doing nothing to advance public safety, it is such a ridiculous consequence to an action that so many of us have agreed shouldn’t be criminalized. People like Cy Vance who say they’re progressive, who say they want to decarcerate, these are the most basic cases to decline to prosecute, and this really calls into question if they’re acting in good faith,” she said.

The MTA says that one in five bus riders are evading the fares — and all fare evasion is costing the agency $225 million per year.