Judge: City Can't Stop Critical Mass Ride

Categories: Cycling

A judge today threw another monkey wrench in New York City's effort to stop the Critical Mass bike rides.

In a 24-page ruling issued late Wednesday morning, New York Supreme Court Justice Michael D. Stallman rejected the city's motion for a preliminary injunction to bar people from going on the monthly rides and gathering in Union Square without permits.

He also rejected the city's effort to prevent groups like Times Up! from promoting Critical Mass, unless there's a permit for the event.

Although Stallman didn't dismiss the city's lawsuit, he said the arguments the city has presented thus far were unlikely to prevail.

The city's law department immediately announced it would appeal the decision.

"We intend to appeal this ruling, because we do not believe that public safety, the law, or common sense have been well served by the Court's denial of our request for a preliminary injunction," said city attorney Gabriel Taussig in a press statement.

But lawyers for the cyclists, who previously battled back the city's efforts to obtain an injunction against the rides in federal court, were roundly pleased.

"Hopefully this ruling will bring a dose of reality to the city, that they can't continue to demand a permit for the ride," said civil libertarian Norman Siegel, who's part of the legal team defending Critical Mass.

Last month, a lower court refused to convict cyclists on charges of parading without a permit, terming the whole permitting scheme unconstitutional. The city is now appealing that ruling, too.

In his decision Wednesday, Judge Stallman argued that the city's laws governing parades and processions are both vaguely defined and perhaps incompatible with an open and ad hoc event like Critical Mass, which has no leaders and no set route or destination.

"New Yorkers commuting over the Brooklyn Bridge during the transit strike could be considered `bicycling en masse' and affecting vehicular traffic," he noted.

At the same time, Judge Stallman took a dig at cyclists' claims that Critical Mass rides should be treated as "ordinary traffic," calling that argument "at best curious and at worst, disingenuous."

Yet an injunction, he noted, wouldn't necessarily stop the rides and could instead flood the court with people facing contempt of court -- a misdemeanor charge punishable by up to a year in jail. (By contrast, the "parading without a permit" charge is a low-level violation punishable by 10 days max.)

Rather than criminalize the ride, Stallman urged both sides to just find a way to work it out. "Mutual de-escalation of rhetoric and conduct, and a conciliatory attitude, may help the parties and the Critical Mass riders resolve the litigation and arrive at a workable modus vivendi," he wrote.

The big question, of course, is how the NYPD will interpret this decision when it comes to policing the next big Critical Mass, on Friday, February 24. Stallman's ruling doesn't do anything to stop the cops from making arrests, though lawyers for the cyclists said it would be "bad faith" for the city to continue charging people for "parading without a permit."

"They can do whatever they want. Whether it's legal or even reasonable is even more up for grabs," said defense attorney Gideon Oliver, who is now demanding that the District Attorney's office drop all permit charges pending against cyclists.

NYPD Deputy Commissioner Paul J. Browne weighed in with this statement:

"Nothing in the decision prevents the police from arresting individuals who block intersections or otherwise break the law. Also, the Police Department offered long ago to work with the organizers to ensure a safe ride in which police would stop vehicular traffic at intersections so bicyclists could proceed without stopping along the route, while, conversely, holding bicyclists at intersections to allow ambulances and other emergencies vehicles to proceed or to alleviate bottlenecks. It was rejected but the offer stands."

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