June 12, 2012– They arrange prostitutes’ schedules and ferry them to hotels for appointments, drum up clients for pimps and pocket half the proceeds.
Cabdrivers who transport prostitutes between clients are coming under scrutiny as the sex trafficking industry has grown. After a series of hearings over the past six months in which victims have spoken of the drivers’ role, the City Council plans to pass legislation on Wednesday that would raise fines on drivers who knowingly shuttle trafficking victims, and would direct the Taxi and Limousine Commission to educate drivers about the issue.
In the months since Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras, a Democrat of Queens, introduced the legislation in December, advocates for sex trafficking victims have raised concerns that cabdrivers might discriminate against some customers in an effort to avoid picking up fares who appear to be engaged in sex work. “It was almost discriminating against some women from getting picked up by livery-cab drivers because of this fear that this woman could be involved in trafficking,” said Jimmy Lee, the executive director of Restore NYC, a victims’ advocacy group.
That concern prompted the bill’s sponsors to add language emphasizing that drivers would not be penalized for responding to regular passenger hails. Drivers “may not refuse fares solely based on the appearance of an individual,” the revised bill reads, adding that “it is unlawful to refuse a fare based upon an individual’s actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender.”
The bill, along with a second piece of legislation that aims to punish drivers who operate unregistered cars as livery cabs, is part of what Christine C. Quinn, the Council speaker, said was a broader effort to curb sex trafficking in New York City.
“It’s unimaginable that the cars have become such a linchpin in this operation, but they have,” Ms. Quinn said.
On Wednesday, the Council will also announce a partnership with Delta Air Lines and American Airlines aimed at tracking sex trafficking on airplanes and in airports.
About 4,000 minors are trafficked through New York City each year, largely through airports, Ms. Quinn said.
“It’s not a fact we’re proud of, which is why we as a municipal government are going to break any infrastructure that’s out there for sex trafficking,” she said.
Advocates for sex trafficking victims say that they have seen the number of reported trafficking cases rise over the past several years, and that drivers have increasingly figured in the victims’ stories. One sex trafficking victim who testified before a joint hearing of the City Council’s Transportation and Women’s Issues Committees in December estimated that she had worked with 70 drivers who had brought her to 5,000 clients, who often found the drivers’ numbers in newspaper advertisements or cards passed out on the street.
And in April, prosecutors broke up what they said was one of the first sex trafficking rings run largely by livery drivers, six of whom were indicted on charges of helping a father-son team traffic prostitutes between Pennsylvania and Manhattan. The drivers were accused of ferrying the women to upscale hotels and clubs to solicit clients, telling the women about clients’ sexual preferences, and taking a cut of the profits. The women, whom the operation’s leaders tattooed with their street names and a bar code, were allowed to keep a few dollars each night to buy food and other necessities, according to prosecutors.
The proposed legislation was praised by Laurel W. Eisner, executive director of Sanctuary for Families, an organization that works with sex trafficking victims. Ms. Eisner said some drivers were “effectively operating brothels on wheels,” and said many victims “have been brutalized by drivers who play an active and vicious role in this forced prostitution.”
Under the terms of the City Council legislation, a driver would face a $10,000 fine and the loss of his or her license if convicted of a felony related to sex trafficking.
The city’s taxi commission is taking on what David S. Yassky, the taxi commissioner, has said could be a costly responsibility: educating drivers about the penalties for trafficking and training them to spot trafficking victims. The training would be required for drivers applying for or renewing a taxi or livery license.
In an effort to address critics, including Councilman Daniel J. Halloran, Republican of Queens, who had attacked the training program as a financial burden, the bill’s sponsors said the revised measure would allow the commission to cut costs by producing a video for first-time licensees and pamphlets for drivers renewing their licenses. The program is expected to cost about $75,000.