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The New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission can revoke the license of a cab driver who refuses to pick up a customer even if the driver has no prior violations, an appeals court in Manhattan ruled Tuesday. The unanimous panel of the Appellate Division, 1st Department, reversed a lower court ruling that said the penalty was too stiff for a first infraction and violated the city’s Administrative Code, which sets guidelines for punishing drivers. Though the code does establish guidelines, the court said, the commission has the inherent authority to revoke a cab driver’s license for conduct that is “adverse to the public interest.” “There can be no dispute that any unjustified service refusals by licensed taxicab drivers threaten the best interests of the public since such refusals not only perpetuate the insidious problem of discrimination, but also adversely impact a vital and integral component of the transportation system of New York City,” the court wrote in Arif v. The New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission, 1772. The ruling is the latest — and perhaps the final — court decision involving “Operation Refusal,” a much-heralded sting operation that began after actor Danny Glover, who is black, was ignored by several unoccupied taxis. When Glover publicly complained about the way he was treated, the city began a sting operation to catch cab drivers who refused to pick up passengers. At the outset of the operation, the taxi commission began suspending drivers — without a hearing — who turned away undercover agents posing as customers. The commission changed that practice in April 2002, after Eastern District of New York Judge Raymond J. Dearie ruled that suspending a driver without a hearing violated the driver’s due process rights. The judge upheld, however, the commission’s position on revocations based on a single infraction, saying it was constitutional. The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals later affirmed that ruling. A few months after Dearie’s ruling, though, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice James A. Yates found that the commission could not revoke a driver’s license for refusing a passenger if it was the driver’s first offense, even after a hearing. Yates said the Administrative Code called for a fine for the first infraction and a suspension for the second. The commission could only revoke a license, he said, if a driver had three infractions in three years. In reversing Yates on Tuesday, the 1st Department rejected the argument that a harsh punishment for first-time offenders was either capricious or violated the Administrative Code. The Taxi and Limousine Commission, the court said, has clear statutory authority to revoke a driver’s license if it sees a threat to the public’s best interests. Corporation Counsel Michael Cardozo said in a statement, “Now that federal and state appellate courts have upheld the TLC’s revocation authority against a variety of legal claims, all New Yorkers should feel more confident that when they hail a cab, the driver will offer them appropriate service.” Isaac Godinger, who brought the suit on behalf of two suspended cab drivers, questioned whether the commission’s revocation policy is unconstitutionally vague. “Acting against the public interest is in my mind a very vague thing,” he said. “Why have a set of [disciplinary] rules if you can just claim someone was acting against the public interest?” Godinger said his clients were unlikely to attempt an appeal. The taxi commission was represented by Assistant Corporation Counsel Scott Shorr. Presiding Justice John T. Buckley and Justices Eugene L. Nardelli, Angela M. Mazzarelli, Betty Weinberg Ellerin and Alfred D. Lerner concurred on the ruling.

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