Still No Traction for City in Critical Mass Bike Busts

Categories: Cycling

Bike activists are boasting of back-to-back court victories this week. On Monday, a New York City judge dismissed charges of parading without a permit for four cyclists arrested during a January 27 Critical Mass ride, reaffirming a previous court ruling that found the parade law unconstitutional.

New York Supreme Court justice Ellen Gesmer argued that the city's parade permit scheme was too vague and overbroad and appeared to be selectively enforced. She noted that in this case, two of the defendents were charged with unlawfully "parading" even though they were riding in a group of four—far below the "20 or more" threshhold that the NYPD has been using to define events requiring a permit.

Judge Gesmer also dismissed charges of disorderly conduct brought against three of the defendants, ruling that riding side by side on bikes was not a criminal form of disruption, even if some cars are forced to slow down or change lanes because of it.

Judge Gesmer did however uphold the disorderly conduct charge against one woman accused of running a red light with 50 other cyclists during the ride.

Reached late Wednesday, a lawyer for city insisted the parade law was constitutional, but said the city was working on amending the provision in order to "eliminate any possible ambiguity as to the type of activity that constitutes a parade and is thus required to obtain a permit."

In another win for the Critical Mass crowd, a New York City traffic court judge dismissed charges against a volunteer legal observer who was yanked off her bike and dumped on the ground by Assistant Police Chief Bruce Smolka during last February's mass ride.

Adrienne Wheeler was ticketed for riding the wrong way up Seventh Avenue in Times Square. But the judge tossed the ticket when the officer who wrote it admitted in court that he did not personally observe Wheeler doing that.

"Falsely swearing in a complaint—even a traffic ticket—is an actual crime punishable by up to a year in jail," noted Wheeler's lawyer Simone Levine.

At the hearing, Lieutenant Joseph Caneco, head of operations for the NYPD's Patrol Borough Manhattan South, demanded he be allowed to testify against Wheeler, saying he had witnessed the incident. But the judge refused because Caneco did not write her ticket.

More than just a technicality, Gideon Oliver, a lawyer who has represented the bulk of the more than 650 people arrested during Critical Mass rides over the last two years, said the dismissal of Wheeler's ticket underscored the "widespread" problem of police officers being asked to arrest and testify against demonstrators for things they did not actually see.

"This is the same thing the NYPD was criticized for during the mass arrests that took place during the RNC," Oliver said, speaking of the 2004 Republican National Convention, when many legal observers, bystanders, and protesters were rounded up, whether they were doing anything illegal or not.

Most of the more than 1800 RNC cases have been dropped.

The Civilian Complaint Review Board is still investigating a complaint of excessive force filed against Smolka by Wheeler.

In other good news for city cyclists, the Department of Transportation announced plans to add 200 miles of bike lanes on city streets over the next three years.

The move comes after a citywide study showed 225 cyclists have died in traffic accidents over the last 10 years (including three on Manhattan's Houston Street over the last 13 months).

The city is also pledging new streets signs and a public outreach campaign to encourage bikers and motorists to "share" the road.

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