By Kevin Deutsch and Sasha Gonzales
Herminio Robles has cost the City of New York a few dozen dollars in MetroCard swipes.
But the criminal justice system has spent tens of thousands of dollars punishing him for it.
The 35-year-old Co-Op City resident has been arrested numerous times for theft of services – the legal charge for fare evasion – and has challenged several misdemeanor convictions in state appellate courts, hoping to clear his record. His most recent legal loss came earlier this month, when the First Department upheld his conviction for attempted criminal possession of a forged instrument stemming from a 2015 farebeating bust.
According to police, Robles was bending MetroCards at the No. 4 subway station at East Fordham Road and Jerome Avenue before he slipped through a turnstile without paying. An NYPD officer witnessed the act and arrested Robles, who was convicted at a June 2017 bench trial in Bronx Supreme Court.
Critics of farebeating arrests say the taxpayer money it took to achieve that result – including pay for officers, prosecutors, judges, court officers, and clerks – represents a needless waste when weighed against the lost $2.75 in subway fare.
“I was probably trying to get home or to a doctor’s appointment. I think I was targeted,” Robles, who is Latinx, told Bronx Justice News of his multiple arrests on the subway. “The police look for people who don’t pay the fare in poorer neighborhoods, they hide to catch them.”
Robles, who records show has also faced low-level drug charges in the past, added: “I don’t understand why they did that to me for something so small. I had to keep coming back to court. I feel like the system was working against me.”
A little more than 5,000 New Yorkers were arrested for farebeating in 2018 – 90 percent of them people of color, according to NYPD data. And while the Bronx District Attorney’s Office encourages the NYPD to issue summonses for theft of services rather than make arrests – unless there is what the office calls a “public safety exception” – police frequently haul Bronx farebeaters to jail anyway, records show.
The policy of the Bronx DA’s Office is to decline to prosecute theft of services “where that charge appears without any other charge,” said Patrice O’ Shaughnessy, Director of Communications for the DA’s Office.
NYPD officers aware of that policy often add additional charges, such as criminal trespass and attempted forgery (a charge commonly brought against suspects who bend empty MetroCards in a way that allows them to bypass turnstile scanners), according to transit activists and public defense organizations.
“Fare evasion is an essential crime of poverty for our clients and other low-income New Yorkers who are trying to access employment, education, or critical services,” said Anthony Posada, Supervising Attorney of the Community Justice Unit at The Legal Aid Society. “Despite efforts by local district attorneys’ offices to scale back fare beat prosecution, the New York City Police Department continues to target Black and Brown people at a disproportionate rate. Until public transit is made free, we will see this disparate enforcement time and time again.”
The city’s fare evasion policies came under renewed scrutiny recently when New York City Transit President Andy Byford said the MTA planned to crack down on train and bus fare beaters, who the authority estimates cost the system more than $225 million in revenue last year.
As part of its effort to close a budget gap projected to reach $1 billion by 2021, Byford has said the MTA is working with the NYPD to create “fare evasion strike teams” to catch farebeaters.
The MTA has publicized data estimating that nearly 600,000 subway and bus riders use the transit system each day without paying. But critics have questioned the methodology used to arrive at that number, and accused the agency of scapegoating minority communities for its longstanding financial problems.
“Blaming Black and Latinx New Yorkers in poverty is cynical and wrong,” city advocacy groups wrote in a joint letter to Byford earlier this year.
The NYPD, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment, has eased its strict enforcement of farebeating in certain cases. Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill have strongly defended the department’s enforcement policies.
“Fare evasion is not acceptable and we cannot create a situation where people think it is acceptable,” de Blasio said at a press conference with O’Neill last year.
But for straphangers like Robles, who has spent years coming and going from court for low-level charges, enforcement of fare evasion has had a devastating impact.
“I don’t think it’s fair,” he said. “People need the subway.”