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Judge: MTA board's closed hearings unconstitutional

A federal judge has ruled that a longtime practice of barring public access to hearings for violations committed by riders of New York City's subways and buses is unconstitutional.

In a ruling released Monday, U.S. District Judge Richard Sullivan called the practice by the Metropolitan Transit Authority's adjudication board a violation of the First Amendment. He did leave open the possibility that such hearings could be closed, but only if the person charged makes such a request.

The ruling came in a suit filed by the New York Civil Liberties Union on behalf of a person who was issued a summons for taking still photos in the subway.

The adjudication board was created 25 years ago to handle infractions such as turnstile jumping, public urination and having open containers of alcoholic beverages, violations that carry fines up to $100. The hearings are held at adjudication board offices in downtown Brooklyn before hearing officers.

The Transit Authority held 20,000 hearings last year and 25,000 though November this year.

The NYCLU learned about the closed hearings in January when staff lawyers were preparing for the client's hearing, said Christopher Dunn, the lead attorney on the case. The lawsuit seeking to bar the Transit Authority from closing hearings was filed in April.

"We are concerned that people are not getting treated fairly and what kind of enforcement activity the police are doing in the subway system," Dunn said. "Secret courts simply have no place in our society."

Transit Authority officials said Monday they are reviewing the decision and, in a statement, said the hearings "have never been secretive or closed-door and any suggestion to the contrary would be simply inaccurate."

Lawyers for the Transit Authority argued that whether to close a hearing has been up to a defendant and helps to protect those who don't want their actions to become public.

But Sullivan ruled that though "certain respondents would prefer privacy in the adjudication of their disputes, just as certain litigants would prefer the same in the criminal or civil context," such a concern "is not enough to "defeat the First Amendment right access."

He ruled that if the Authority wanted to close a hearing at the request of a defendant, it would be up to the individual hearing officer to determine if the hearing should be closed.

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