Successfully Disputing a Ticket (aka Beating The Man)

This is a story about having a vigorous—some might say pathological—need to fight a broken system. In case you didn’t notice the article’s title, I’ll tell you right off the bat that I ultimately won this months-long dispute with the New York MTA. And you can, too! The easiest thing to do, of course, is to not to get a ticket in the first place—this is not a how-to for criminals. But sometimes, these things are unavoidable.

My story begins on a relatively mundane evening in January. I was rushing out of my office—a startup in Chelsea—so I could get home for a scheduled work call. I headed to my regular subway station, where I pulled out the creased monthly MetroCard I’d been trying to iron out (mostly by putting it between two credit cards and sitting on it). The first time I swiped it, the turnstile told me to “Please swipe again.” The second time: “Just used,” with the smirkiest of smirks on its mischievous nonexistent face. It wouldn’t let me in.

This is not an infrequent occurrence, as I’m sure New Yorkers can attest; generally when this happens, one shouts some brief exasperated explanation to the station attendant, who then unlocks the emergency door. At that particular station, though, there is no attendant; and a rush-hour crowd of straphangers (doesn’t that sound like an old-timey sex term? Straphangers. Straphangers.) amassed behind me, their irritation palpable. So, I stepped over the turnstile. Whatever. And I was immediately greeted by a plainclothes cop—which is fine: it’s their job, after all. I explained the scenario, not thinking that it would necessarily end with us laughing over a couple of beerskies, but at least expecting him to let me go with a warning! It must have been quota day, though, because I got no sympathy from the cop, who issued me a $100 ticket.

I asked him, “Sir, I know you saw what you thought was me flouting the laws of this city and you were required to take action, but do you understand why, as a civilian, this feels very unfair? For me to purchase a MetroCard every month, never deceive the system [which is true, by the way], be in a rush to get home to continue my workday, and be punished for that?” To which he repeated some stuff about being a “Police Officer of the City of New York” that clearly indicated he was not about to toe the blue line for me. So, furiously, I got on the next train, commiserating with a bike messenger who noted the yellow slip in my hands with a knowing smile and was immediately subjected to my blustering all the way to Essex/Delancey.

I don’t consider myself an angry person—“excessively vengeful” may be a better term for it. I knew, on principle, there was no way I was going to pay $100; also, I’d told the cop in the heat of my excessive vengeance that I would “absolutely fight!” the ticket, and I felt obligated to follow through.

So I called the wrongdoers’ hotline on the back of my ticket, found out where the Transit Adjudication Bureau is (Brooklyn Heights) and the best time to go (8:30 am, preferably not Mondays or Fridays), and began the long slog of disputing the ticket.

A few mornings later, I found myself in a large room at the TAB waiting to be called for my hearing. I had no idea what to expect—behind that metal door, were there a bunch of little courtrooms? Where would I sit in the little court? Would I be held in contempt if I texted a photo to my boyfriend? What about my parents? What if I just took a photo and didn’t text it until I left the premises?

As it turned out, I was seen by only one hearing officer, a very nice lady, in a small room with a tape recorder on the table. After verifying on the record that I was telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me Oprah, I explained the scenario (see above). She sent me back to the waiting area while she deliberated. After a few minutes, my name was called again and a man behind a very thick glass window told me the case had been adjourned until I could get a record of that dastardly MetroCard’s activity on January 10.

Now, here’s where it gets really fun: I sent the necessary paperwork to an MTA vortex, including handwritten requested dates. The adjournment was through April 30, which seemed like plenty of time, except that an entire month passed before I got a report back from the MTA. The report indicated that my request was processed on February 14, and attached was a list of the MetroCard’s full activity… on January 14. Which was completely useless except perhaps as a nice walk down Recent Memory Lane, because, as I mentioned, the incident occurred on January 10. Excessively vengeful words were uttered. I thought about just giving up and mailing in a $100 check, but at this point, I was too invested in probing the bureaucratic inner-workings.

A few mornings later, I found myself in a long line at some MTA building in the Financial District—incidentally, also where you can go if you lose your MetroCard, as I found out from the 60 people in front of me who had all suffered that plight. I was eventually seen by a clerk who seemed very angry, presumably because he was going for the company record in MetroCards-replaced-per-hour and my unrelated request was slowing him down. After scanning the first activity report and the ticket, he finally agreed to re-process. Off I went to wait some more… another month, in fact.

Version 2.0 of the MetroCard activity report finally came and I opened it with my heart pounding, like someone receiving their STI test results. Success! No MetroCard swipe was registered on the evening of January 10, but the swipe number jumped from #13 on the morning of January 10 to #15 on January 11. Glitch! Don’t get too excited, I told myself. Just because you had a nice hearing officer the first time doesn’t mean some jerk won’t throw this report aside and say that you should still pay a fine for setting a bad example. Good point, self.

Again, a few mornings later, I was back at TAB. I greeted the security guards on my way in, now old friends. After a brief wait, my name was called by a different hearing officer (thankfully, another nice lady) and the process was much the same as the first, except this time with Exhibit B. The officer reviewed the report, raising an eyebrow at the missing swipe number just as I’d dreamed she would, and twenty minutes later the clerk behind the thick glass told me with a smile that my case was dismissed! “You’re a free woman,” he said, in my imagination. I left the building with my head held high, and spent $10 of my hard-kept money on an extravagant breakfast. Take that, somebody!

Photo by Sara Slattery

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    • Gosh I had a similar incident just happen to me and I felt so defeated. This seriously brought my hopes up. I am going to fight this.

  1. You have to go under (not over) the turnstile if you want to avoid a ticket.
    If you go over, you’ll get a ticket but you will win later on when you fight it.
    Glad you took the right route that day and saved some coin for breakfast.

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