Brooklyn Cop Dishes Out Disorderly Conduct Charge to Cyclist Who Ran Red

discon.jpgJeff Geisinger’s disorderly conduct summons.

When Jeff Geisinger biked through a red light on Atlantic Avenue last October, he knew that he might get a traffic ticket. So when a cop pulled him over, he wasn’t surprised. He just didn’t expect to be handed a summons for disorderly conduct, a criminal violation.

What Geisinger did wasn’t legal and it wasn’t the safest technique. Shortly after midnight on a Tuesday, he ran a red while biking north on Sixth Avenue in Brooklyn, at the intersection of Atlantic Avenue. "There was a stopped car to the right of me on Atlantic waiting to turn north," he said. "As the light turned red and I dashed through the intersection, the car slowly started to turn and I cut in front of it, with enough distance between the two of us for me to pass by safely." An officer saw the maneuver and pulled him over.

It’s hard to imagine that what happened next would have happened to a motorist who did the same thing. Rather than write a traffic ticket, the officer issued Geisinger a summons for disorderly conduct.

While moving violations are non-criminal offenses, disorderly conduct is part of New York’s penal code and carries a fine of up to $250 and up to 15 days in prison. It’s something of a catch-all charge, probably by design, that can theoretically be invoked for "threatening behavior," making "unreasonable noise," using "abusive language" in public, or obstructing traffic, among other things.

Geisinger says that he didn’t give the officer a hard time or make a scene, making much of the statute inapplicable to his situation, but not necessarily all of it. (The 77th Precinct has not returned Streetsblog’s requests for comment.)

"It sounds strange to be charged with disorderly conduct for a moving violation," said Adam White, an attorney who has represented cyclists for more than 10 years. White cited a 2006 court case which determined that improper conduct must be "reinforced by a culpable mental state to create a public disturbance." If Geisinger wasn’t intentionally trying to cause trouble, he probably shouldn’t have been charged with disorderly conduct. White concluded that "the police officer did not have a reasonable basis for charging the cyclist" with disorderly conduct.

He added that the relevant question is how the law normally gets interpreted and applied. On that score, it’s worth mentioning that Gus Gonzalez, the driver whom a witness saw intentionally knock a cyclist to the pavement on Ninth Avenue, causing severe bruising, is now facing a disorderly conduct charge as well.

We’ll never know for certain if the charge would have held up in the city’s justice system. In December, Geisinger went to court, pled not guilty and had his case dismissed when the cop didn’t show up. He regrets being denied his day in court. "I wish I could have at least gotten in a sentence or two to state my case," Geisinger said, "but I silently accepted the dismissal and went home."

  • I’m sorry, but I disagree with the notion that, given today’s auto-centric infrastructure (despite recent piece-meal improvements), running a red light is invariable a less safe decision. I would argue that it is often the safest thing to do.

    Imagine you’re on an east-side avenue, for example. One-way, six lanes wide, with staggered lights timed for thirty miles per hour. If the lights on the avenue are red, that means that the cars will be stopped, and I simply have to use my own judgment to navigate intersections. The second those lights turn green, however, the avenue will be filled with stampeding morons.

    Some times if I’m in a passive mood and just want an easy, relaxing ride, and I’m on a one-way avenue with no bicycle infrastructure, I will actually wait at a green light for the lights to turn red, and then proceed leisurely, again just making intelligent decisions at intersections. When the lights change and the stampede starts charging up again, I pull over again and wait it out.

    I can wait at an intersection and decide when it’s safe to pass through. When they’re stampeding, however, I have very little control over one of them cutting me off, disregarding my occupancy of a lane, etc.

  • The officer probably learned what he knows about cycling traffic infractions during one of the NYPD’s “Critical Mass” operations, where the avowed goal is to impose “zero-tolerance” traffic law enforcement on bicyclists, and much abuse of disorderly conduct charges for simple traffic infractoins has been documented. For thousands of NYC cops, these Critical Mass operations are the only training they’ve had regarding the policing of cyclists. Most other cops have received no training in that area at all.

  • Riding through a red light on a bicycle while endangering no one (except, perhaps, yourself):

    Disorderly conduct.

    Running over and killing someone while driving an automobile:

    No charges filed.

  • J:Lai

    Jeff, that seems hypocritical. It would be great if NYC had idaho stops or something like that, but as of right now cyclists are subject to same laws as autos.
    You can’t ask for enforcement of traffic laws for car drivers, and ask for biking infrastructure, but then claim that the traffic laws shouldn’t apply to bikes.

    I’m not saying I never run reds or go the wrong way on one-way streets, but if you do it you have to accept the consequences.

  • J:Lai,

    Of course bicycles are responsible for adhering to the same laws as autos. At some point back in the day when we were busy handing our country over to automobiles, they came up with a set of laws that was intended to quell the potential harm caused by large two-ton objects traveling at 30, 40, 50 miles per hour. So they finished writing these laws, and those sitting around the hypothetical board room table crossed their arms, breathed a sigh of relief, and said, “There we go. I think we’ve come up with a reasonable set of rules.”

    And then some dude sitting in the back of the room said, “That’s all fine and well, but you know that a different type of vehicle called a Bicycle exists as well. While they probably don’t require the same level of control as autos, we need to put them under some kind of law and order…”

    At which the leader of the group said, “Oh, crap, right. Hmmm… Well, let’s just say that they have to follow the same set of rules so that we can get the hell out of here.”

    I mean, honestly. Do you really think that the idea that bicycles be subject to the same regulation as autos was the result of some kind of well thought-out decision?

    So I do not consider it to be hypocritical to ask the city to enforce laws to protect public safety, while disregarding laws that are simply poorly thought out. If the law was written in such a way to acknowledge the difference in potential harm caused by bicycles vs. autos, then I would happily follow said laws, and accept the consequences for breaking them.

    Here’s a start: Instead of judging speeding violations by Speed, let’s do it by Momentum, because this is the indeed the actual measure of potential harm to be caused by a moving body. Consider an area with a speed limit of twenty-five miles per hour, and how it could be violated by both a bicycle and an auto traveling at thirty miles per hour:

    Momentum = Mass * Velocity
    M_car = (3000 lbs) * (30 mph) = 90000
    M_bicycle = (200 lbs) * (30 mph) = 3000

    In other words, the momentum of the automobile (the measure of its ability to cause harm on impact) is 30 times greater than that of the bicycle. Therefore, in this scenario, it is only logical that the automobile would receive a violation that is 30 times more severe.

    Q E D!

  • Larry Littlefield

    “As the light turned red and I dashed through the intersection, the car slowly started to turn and I cut in front of it, with enough distance between the two of us for me to pass by safely.”

    Were I a police officer observing a cyclist running a red light, I would judge whether the move was dangerous.

    If the cyclist had slowed to a crawl and no pedestrians or motor vehicles were anywhere near, I’d let it go, like jaywalking. If a pedestrian was passed closely at speed, or the cyclists “dashed” through the intersection at speed, I’d give a ticket and lecture. Not an accusation of a felony.

    It would be helpful if there were police trained to manage, instruct and improve the conduct of cyclists and pedestrians, preferably while riding on bicycles themselves. Given the budget, however, that is probably a luxury the city cannot afford, even given low crime and a very large police force relative to population.

  • Erin

    “but as of right now cyclists are subject to same laws as autos”

    Yeah except that autos are rarely subject to the same laws as anybody. Cops need to stop picking on bikes, period. Cars are more dangerous, cars kill more people, and drivers are rarely ticketed for, as other posters pointed out, KILLING PEOPLE.

    NYPD we are losing our faith in you completely, if we ever had any faith in you to lose.

  • Mellow Yellow

    If the Michael Bloomburg and Ray Kelly actually cared about the safety of all street-users, they could take the thousands of dollars wasted twice a month to police critical mass (in the form of dozens of fuel-burning vehicles and several dozen officers) to putting cops on bikes and training all police how to properly apply vehicular and traffic codes.

    What is a law worth if it is a joke that is never enforced?

    The politician or cop who makes this realization can pocket the money that they save the city as far as I am concerned. A bonus for using their brains.

  • Bill from Brooklyn

    Jeff, I completely concur with your approach and utilize a similar technique on my commute in from Brooklyn. I ride on 3rd Avenue under the Gowanus and the safest forward movement is when the lights are red on 3rd Avenue. The craziest is when the lights first turn green (unless there is a significant traffic back-up). I slow/semi-pause at each cross street and yield/stop if there is traffic coming from that side street (including pedestrians going to Bush terminal), but otherwise it it is much safer for me to go. It is also interesting that the traffic agents by the construction in the lowers 20’s generally just nod back a hello to me when I pass them with this method in the morning. They seem to understand it is much safer and that I also don’t slow down the cars in the construction zone where I alwsy I have to take the lane.

    Yes, I realize that my method could result in a ticket some day, but, as Jeff notes, it is more rational and safer.

    Bill

  • J:Lai

    Jeff, I mostly agree with the spirit of your points (except that maybe it should be energy, MV^2, and not simple momentum . . . just splitting hairs.)
    However, until legislation is passed to create different rules for bicycles, bikes are stuck with the same traffic rules that were designed for cars.
    If you are going to take the position that bikes are special (in the absence of any laws to this effect), then you have to accept that this marginalizes bikers, alienates other road users, and reinforces the stereotype of cyclists as self-important egomaniacs who openly flout the laws.

    Up until maybe 5 years ago, this pretty accurately describes how most regular cyclists in NYC were riding, by necessity.

    As progress is made building bike paths and other infrastructure, that is changing. If you want to pursue the path of systemic change that will be more accomodating to a larger group of potential cyclists, then one of the costs is giving up riding like traffic laws don’t apply to you. I am ambivalent about this, since we are currently in a regime where there is a little bit of bike infrastructure but still far more auto infrastructure, and traffic laws are almost all focused on cars.

    However, you can’t have it both ways. It’s like a car driver rolling through a red light late at night when there is no other traffic. The driver can make the equivalent argument that the traffic laws are designed for times when there is high traffic volume on the roads, and he should not be subject to them at 4am. That is not a legitimate argument for someone who expects to benefit from the traffic infrastructure.

  • Erin you wrote too much:

    > Cops need to stop.

    I fixed it for you!

  • DIBS

    Most bicyclists that blow through red lights are acting like assholes. They get what they deserve and more of them should get it. Oftentimes I’m hoping to myself that they get hit. Sometimes it’s not so much to myself!!!!

  • Of course I understand that many of us will need to change our riding style as bike infrastructure and the number of cyclists on the road increases (I keep telling myself that a well-implemented bike share program will be the final nail in the coffin). When I ride in a city in Germany or the Netherlands, I stop at every red light, exclusively use bike infrastructure, ride slowly and patiently behind other bicycle traffic, all of that good stuff. And the whole time I am in one of these European cities, I keep thinking to myself, “Man, this is boring. I can’t wait to get back to New York so I can go fast as all hell and do whatever I want!”

    And while I still maintain that, safety issues aside, the style of riding we employ here in New York is much more fun (and faster to reach your destination, for that matter) than what they have in these cities with modern, intelligently-designed infrastructure. But unlike some more selfish road users who shall remain nameless, I am actually willing to give up the speed and enjoyability of my ride for the good of the city and its citizens.

    I honestly can’t wait for the day when I am riding up First Ave on a heavy, fat-tired city bike with a goofy little bell, without a helmet, going slowly and patiently behind other cyclists in a fully separated bike lane, and stopping at every red light, where I expect to wait in a queue behind five or so other cyclists. Unfortunately, until that day comes, it looks like I’ll continue running red lights, weaving in and out of lanes, as would any other lamb in a lion’s den.

  • I find it interesting that the attorney, without speaking to the cop, states that there was no cause to issue a disorderly conduct summons. For that matter, everyone here seems to feel that the incident happened exactly as described.

  • DIBS

    WOW…you remove my comment because its anti bicyclist??? You’re a douchebag.

  • DIBS

    Sorry, now it’s back!!! Apologies.

  • Wow, DIBS, get what they deserve? Death or severe injury for a minor civil infraction? I hope other city agencies don’t subscribe to this philosophy! Otherwise I rue the day when I could be sent to the electric chair for not separating my recycling, or sending in my tax return a few days late!

    So I guess if you feel that death is an appropriate penalty for a traffic violation, my next question is, what kind of penalties do you propose for more serious crimes, such as theft, or rape?

  • DIBS

    Most of the ones I deal with are in Manhattan and of a much more aggressive breed; typically the messenger riders, most of whom are psychotic. They are flagrant about it. I wish them whatever comes to them for sailing through an intersection full of pedestrians that have the light.

    Someday one of them will get my umbrella in his spokes.

  • DIBS

    And, like Bond says, we really haven’t heard both sides of this story.

  • I mean yeah, there’s a lot of rude ass holes out there… But Death???

  • DIBS

    Maybe not death. Just a few broken bones.

  • Kaja

    > Death or severe injury for a minor civil infraction? I hope other city agencies don’t subscribe to this philosophy!

    Actually, all of them do. Have you ever tried not paying a civil infraction fine?

    In the end, if you resist the government, you will be killed. It escalates from your piddly fine to capital ‘punishment’ slowly, but perfect failure to comply will result in your being killed by the state — even for an initial minor civil infraction like not scoopin the dogpoop.

    > Otherwise I rue the day when I could be sent to the electric chair for not separating my recycling, or sending in my tax return a few days late!

    The only reasons you won’t be killed by your government for these offenses are that you’re paying the small fine, or that the government hasn’t noticed your offense.

    I’m not saying this is all wrong, mind you — I do think there are some things that it’s important enough people not do, that we’re willing to kill them for it.

    Reckless operation of a motor vehicle resulting in serious bodily injury or death to someone else, is probably one of them.

    But don’t kid yourself about ‘civil violations’.

  • “bikes are stuck with the same traffic rules that were designed for cars.”

    That’s not exactly true. Under NY VTL 1234, bicyclists have the same rights aqnd obligations as motorists except for

    (1) rules that apply only to bicyclists (like helmets for kids); and
    (2) rules that by their very nature have no application to bicyclists.

    Exception (2) was applied in a case involving the alleged negligence of a bicyclist who failed to signal for the requisite number of feet prior to turning. The court found that a bicyclist cannot be expected to signal for the length of time a car is required to, because it would be unsafe to require bicyclists to ride one-handed for that length of time.

    While it would be a stretch in many cases to apply this principle to the red light scenario, there are a number of situations where it would reasonably apply to give bicyclists a break compared to motorists because of the inherent differences between bikes and cars.

  • DIBS:
    There are real consequences for real people when you take other humans who happen to be riding a bike at that moment and stick them into a category called “biker” and then muse about those people dying–or when pushed, hedge that maybe you don’t want them to die, you just want them to suffer. You may not end up being the person who acts on those ideas, but you’re certainly helping provide a nurturing ideological environment for the person who does.

    And Jeff:
    There are real consequences for real people when you make up the rules of the road all by your lonesome. One of those consequences is that it feeds the nightmarish psychology of all those DIBSs out there. You might be safe during that moment that you blow through that one light, but you’re making things less safe for the rest of us every time you do.

  • Unsympathetic bicyclist

    Disorderly conduct 240.20 (5) reads as follows: “A person is guilty of disorderly conduct when, with intent to cause public inconvenience, annoyance or alarm, or recklessly creating a risk thereof: 5. He obstructs vehicular or pedestrian traffic.”

    While I agree that policing in NYC generally has a pro-motorist bias, I can tell you from professional experience that this exact charge is also given to motorists who are obstructing traffic (and sometimes people who are just standing on the sidewalk). Disorderly conduct is a catch-all violation that allows police officers to issue a summons in practically any circumstance. While the way it is applied in practice is often a stretch and sometimes a de facto 1st amendment violation, I find it far more egregious when disorderly conduct summonses are handed out to those that dare talk back to police officers then when they are given to cyclists who were in fact obstructing traffic. I don’t think the disorderly conduct statute should exist, but given that it does exist, this seems like a reasonable time to invoke it. In effect, if not intent, the cyclist was inconveniencing a motorist by cutting them off.

  • 11211

    Disorderly conduct is a “violation”, not a misdemeanor or a felony, and it does not appear as part of a criminal record. It is often what small misdemeanors are pled down to – in exchange for a fine and no jail time. In addition to obstructing “vehicular or pedestrian traffic”, as Unsympathetic notes above, it can also be issued for creating “a hazardous … condition by any act which serves no legitimate purpose” – a catch-all phrase to be sure, but one which certainly could apply to a bicyclist running a red light.

    Otherwise, I agree that the officer should have issued a traffic ticket, which would have just required a guilty plea and payment of the penalty. I’m pretty sure you cannot plead guilty by mail and pay a fine for disorderly conduct, so by issuing a violation, the officer *required* that the rider appear in court.

  • Sean

    Personally, I have little sympathy for cyclists who run red lights and then face punishment for their actions. Safety is based on predictability; a contract between road users to follow the same set of actions. Running a red light, even on a bike, breaks this contract and endangers safety – frequently, my safety.

    I ride crosstown each day, across the entire width of Manhattan. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been crossing an intersection and had to lunge on my brake levers or swerve because another cyclist, coming up an avenue, feels entitled to blow through his/her red light. I have a line of cars beside me, a limited time to get through the intersection, and sometimes other cyclists behind me. I really have no where to go so, yes, it is a big deal.

    Aside from being an immediate danger as described above, this kind of displayed behavior makes motorists less likely to follow the rules. “Why should I stop if he doesn’t?” And if they don’t follow the rules, then we’re really, really in trouble.

  • The cop was giving you a break! He gets his silly little “stat” to fill his CO’s silly little quota and you get a charge that is guaranteed to be dropped in court, since it makes no sense. That’s why he didn’t show up.

    The downside is that you have to waste half a day going to court. That is a real downside… but at least it didn’t cost you anything else.

  • At 8:00 this evening, I saw three cyclists dressed in black without headlights ride westbound in the eastbound lanes of 14th Street in the span of five minutes.

    Until this type of behavior stops, we cannot expect the NYPD to give cyclists like us any sort of leeway when it comes to traffic laws.

    I don’t care what lax enforcement there is against motorists. We are not exempt from traffic laws just because of the NYPD’s selective enforcement. Stop at red lights. Ride the right way. Don’t ride on sidewalks. These are not difficult concepts to grasp. And if you want to change these laws, lobby… don’t break them for the sake of civil disobedience, alienating motorists and pedestrians alike and giving law-abiding cyclists like me a bad name.

  • com1

    I agree Chris O’Leary: some bikers pose a threat to the public. For example, take the extreme case of these bikers in this video: http://gothamist.com/2010/02/02/video_more_gonzo_high_speed_bike_ri.php

    In my opinion, two wrongs do not make a right; both bikers and drivers should be held accountable for the laws they break.

  • Com1,

    I appreciate your acknowledging that the “Empire” teaser is an “extreme case,” but even that is a bit of a stretch to the extent you are implying that the activity depicted is a “case” of bicycle traffic. It’s not. It’s almost all trick/daredevil riding deliberately performed for scenes to be presented in a movie. To cite it in this discussion is sort of like taking a car chase scene from some cops-and-robbers movie and using as an example of an “extreme case” for the proposition that motorists should be held accountable for the laws they break.

  • Marty Barfowitz

    We are not exempt from traffic laws just because of the NYPD’s selective enforcement.

    Right. We’re exempt from traffic laws because for 70 years most of those laws were written without cyclists in mind and many of those laws, when followed to the letter, endanger and inconvenience us.

  • C Taylor

    Good f**ing luck changing the NY traffic laws so that cyclists can treat reds like stop signs or yields. The traffic laws are designed to maximize motorist convenience. The people who can change them have no sympathy and no interest in acomodating cyclists. Period. Does anyone think it’s sensible to let motorists U-turn on big busy streets — the law allows it. Is 30mph a sensible speed limit for quiet residential side streets? This blog has documented again and again how you can murder people with your car and the law says there’s no punishment. The traffic laws codify fifty year old societal attitudes about cars. They stink. Forget the law and recall your humanity. Don’t do things that scare, hurt or impose on other people. Get the f** off the sidewalk, don’t ride the wrong way, and don’t blast through reds. The pedestrian is always right — even when their wrong.

  • Actually, C Taylor, u-turns are illegal in “business districts” — defined as any street where within 600 feet there are at least 300 feet of frontage of hotels, banks, office buildings, railroads, and other business/industrial purposes — but good luck getting NYPD to enforce that. (NYC Traffic Rules 4-05; VTL 105)

  • Danny G

    Though I am a big more optimistic about changing laws, I have to agree with C Taylor about not being obsessively by-the-book. Walk/Ride/Drive defensively and responsibly.

  • Actually, the police officer did the cyclist a favor. If he had been charged with disobeying a red light, then that traffic ticket would be answerable at the Traffic Violations Bureau. At this court, there is no plea bargaining meaning it is “all or nothing” you fight a traffic ticket there. If you lose a red light ticket at the TVB, you get 3 points on your license and a $250 fine for a first offense.

    In contrast, the cyclist’s disorderly conduct was returnable at 346 Broadway in Manhattan where you can get a plea bargain. Further, the disorderly conduct point does not involves points on your license.

    It sound counter-intuitive, but given the choice, I’d take a 346 Broadway ticket over a TVB ticket any day.

  • Ian Turner

    Traffic Lawyer, agreed there is a tradeoff here but a cyclist doesn’t much care about license points and the red light ticket can be paid by mail. If a conviction were guaranteed, I’d take the red light ticket as the fine is the same.

  • Jonathan

    Sixth Avenue is one-way southbound between Atlantic and Flatbush, and therefore Mr. Geisinger was already violating the traffic law by going the wrong way on a one-way street, even before he came to the red light.

  • Mike

    Nope, it has been two-way between Atlantic and Pacific for a while now (because the Carlton Ave bridge was demolished and never replaced).

  • Citizen of New York

    I received a Disorderly Conduct summons from Roy Kim of the NYPD and beat it hands down. It was for invoking my rights; I served him and the judge dismissed before I could even swear in to testify. I have it in writing.

    All summons are under Admiralty/Maritime law under an international contract in commerce. If you don’t understand this; you’ll keep paying fines and getting locked up, period.

  • Dyabolyx

    Can you contact me at dyabolyx@AOL.com to yell me about this.

  • I got this same thing on my bike!

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