Inside the excellent crackdown on criminal ice-cream trucks
One challenge for any mayor running for national office is that New York isn’t like the rest of America. Last week, as New Yorkers finally began sweltering under summer-ish temperatures, the full weight of City Hall’s power came down on . . . the ice-cream man. The crazy thing is that this harsh crackdown wasn’t crazy: On Gotham’s mean streets, selling ice cream to kids is a cutthroat business that requires the intervention of the city’s sheriff.
Yes, New York has a sheriff, and his name is Joseph Fucito. He comes not bearing a cowboy hat but a sophisticated legal and financial strategy.
A little more than a year and a half ago, Fucito says, the city’s Department of Finance and his own Sheriff’s Office noticed that, when it came to ice-cream trucks, the normal procedures of making sure that parking, speeding and red-light tickets get paid didn’t seem to be working.
In general, if you accrue enough unpaid tickets, the sheriff can seize your money and property to satisfy the debt.
Yet the ice-cream-truck business found a clever way around this inducement to pay fines. From Softee Taste to Super Softee Express, the owners of 76 ice-cream trucks allegedly evaded nearly $4.5 million in traffic fines. To avoid having their property seized, the owners transferred “the ticketed trucks to dummy corporate entities for less than fair value,” the city charges, repeatedly moving ownership “among a host of shell corporations.”
The fine legal minds of the ice-cream business had allegedly figured out a weakness in the city’s enforcement method: The sheriff can’t seize your property to satisfy unpaid tickets if you transfer that property to someone else.
“Knowing of the process and . . . timeline,” the ice-cream men (and women) “rapidly transfer the registrations . . . to other shell corporations,” leaving the sheriff empty-handed, the city alleges.
So the city went to court, in secret, to secure an unusual order: allowing for the surprise seizure of the 46 trucks with the most fines outstanding, under the theory that they had been fraudulently transferred.
Last week, the sheriff’s officers took 34 of the trucks, in a surprise action. Deputy sheriffs are still looking for 12. A judge must rule on the merits of the case — Candie Land Ice Cream Inc. and the rest will get their day in court — but for now, the jingly trucks are off the streets.
The city has never deployed this strategy before, at least not that anyone can remember (and Fucito has been around since the Mayor Ed Koch days). So why start now?
One reason was the “scale and scope” of this alleged operation. If this industry is allowed to get away with evading millions of dollars in fines, as the city alleges, others might try the same thing.
Another reason was public safety. Anyone who regularly walks around Midtown sees ice-cream trucks parked across crosswalks and bus lanes, obstructing traffic, putting pedestrians in danger and slowing buses.
The city attached several pictures to this effect in its application for the seizure. Between 2012 and 2017, in Midtown alone, the trucks racked up 846 crosswalk violations, 93 red-light violations and 63 handicapped-ramp violations, part of their more than 22,000 in total summonses. Maps presented in court show the concentration of tickets in Midtown.
For anyone (like me) who has ever wondered why an ice cream truck can seemingly park indefinitely in a crosswalk with no punishment, the answer is that tickets aren’t a deterrent to bad behavior if the alleged scofflaw doesn’t pay the ticket. “This posed a significant threat to public safety, if there is no deterrence,” says Fucito.
Midtown’s traffic problems extend far beyond Ice Mania and Very Berry Ice — and many of the worst offenders are government vehicles, often with fake parking permits. Another problem, too, will be if the ice-cream industry starts viewing the tickets as simply the cost of doing business — like UPS and Fedex do, duly paying their fines without changing their behavior. But a long, hot summer without the ice-cream truck idling all day in a Rockefeller Center crosswalk is a refreshing prospect.
While the mayor is in New Hampshire and Iowa, New Yorkers can rest easy, if a little more sweaty: The sheriff, and the Department of Finance, are still policing our mean streets.
Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor of City Journal.
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