The lawyer infamously arrested last year for “criminal mischief” after repairing a motorist’s defaced licensed plate has sued the NYPD, alleging the cops are failing to turn over key evidence and, barring court action, might actually destroy it.
Adam White, a partner at Vaccaro & White (whose practice represents injured cyclists and pedestrians), filed his suit in Manhattan Supreme Court on Jan. 13, demanding a court order compelling the NYPD to preserve key evidence related to his Nov. 11, 2022 arrest. White was booked for “criminal mischief” after removing a piece of plastic obscuring a motorist’s license plate in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
White’s arrest was followed by considerable backlash, owing to the NYPD’s long-term neglect of the city’s “ghost car” epidemic. Innumerable drivers in the Big Apple obscure, deface, or remove their license plates, or use temporary fake plates, to evade tolls and speed cameras, costing the city and tolling authorities millions of dollars per year and enabling consequence-free reckless driving on New York’s streets.
“People are getting killed left and right. It’s a matter of time before one of these ghost vehicles, god forbid…hit-and-run and badly injure people. They’re untraceable,” White said in an interview with amNewYork Metro. “I’m not seeing anyone jumping up and down, like Mayor Adams out there, ‘hey, now we’re gonna really double down on this.’ I think that, if anything else, we have to try to agitate more and more until we’re taken more seriously.”
After the substantial public outcry — and the emergence of other vigilantes committing “criminal mischief” demonstrating the scale of license plate concealment in the Big Apple — the charges against White were ultimately dropped by Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez.
Now, White says he is considering filing a sprawling federal lawsuit against the city and NYPD, alleging civil rights violations and wrongful arrest stemming from the incident. Last week’s action is more preliminary, intended to ensure that evidence crucial to White’s case is not fed to the shredder by the police department.
In his suit, White says he filed Freedom of Information Law requests on Dec. 1 with the NYPD and Brooklyn DA seeking items related to his arrest, including body cam footage, 911 call recordings, and the criminal complaint filed against him. The DA’s office told him they wouldn’t have a response until March 15; the NYPD said a response couldn’t be expected until April 19, but that “[d]ue to issues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, there may be extensive delays, lasting up to one year, in determining your request.”
As reported by numerous outlets, city agencies, particularly the NYPD, are notorious for stonewalling freedom of information requests, to the point journalists have formally complained to city government, and Governor Kathy Hochul promised greater transparency and speed in records requests.
White, of all people, was not one to back down when facing the bureaucratic slurry. In advance of his larger suit, he is requesting the NYPD preserve and turn over the names of all officers involved in his arrest, the name of the motorist who complained to police, the criminal complaint and desk appearance ticket against him, and all relevant body cam footage, among other items.
Time is of the essence, says White: should a judge fail to grant a temporary restraining order, the attorney claims NYPD policy could have the evidence destroyed within 90 days.
“Respondents City and NYPD normally preserve some of the categories of information and documents requested for a period of 90 – or fewer – days from the date of the incident,” wrote White’s attorney, Gideon Orion Oliver, in the complaint. “Respondents will likely destroy the requested documents, including the recordings, after the relevant preservation period, unless there is a preservation order in place. Mr. White faces imminent and irreparable harm should the Court deny this aspect of his application and the above enumerated evidence, as a result, is spoliated, lost, or destroyed.”
In a statement, an NYPD spokesperson said that, if asked, it would place a “litigation hold” on the relevant evidence to prevent its destruction.
“The NYPD will review and act accordingly with regard to the demand to preserve documents upon receipt of this petition,” said the spokesperson. “The NYPD has a very robust preservation process and upon receipt of this petition, as it does with all such requests, it will place a litigation hold on all requested and relevant evidence. The purpose of a litigation hold is to suspend a regular retention period which is set by the NYC Law Department and the Department of Records and Information Services.”
Decades worth of NYPD evidence was destroyed last month in an inferno at the department’s Red Hook impound facility — a scenario of severe concern to attorneys and their clients.
The Brooklyn DA’s office declined to comment. Law Department spokesperson Nick Paolucci said the agency will “review the suit when served.”
White’s arrest came during his morning bike commute to work on Nov. 11. Per his own description in the lawsuit, at around 9:40 a.m. that morning, he was riding his bike northbound on 4th Avenue near St. Marks Avenue, when he noticed a black Chevrolet SUV parked adjacent to the bike lane, with illegally tinted windows and a piece of plastic obscuring its rear license plate.
The bicycling barrister took photos of the vandalized plate and briefly removed the piece of plastic to get a picture of the full plate, which has racked up an astounding 31 violations since 2019, including 14 bus lane violations and six school speed camera violations, according to How’s My Driving NY. The driver has continued to rack up tickets following the incident, including $50 for failing to stop at a red light just a week later.
When he removed the plastic, the driver jumped out of his car, grabbed the object from White, and proceeded to call the police to report the cyclist for defacing property. Officers from the 78th Precinct arrived, and after questioning, White was placed under arrest and brought to the 78th precinct, where he was held for five hours before being released on a desk appearance ticket.
The driver — whom White has stated he believes is connected to the NYPD — did not face arrest or any other penalties.
Despite a “crackdown” announced this summer by Mayor Eric Adams, the NYPD does not consider plate scofflaws a priority, to put it generously. Many of those with defaced plates are also public employees with city parking placards, with the NYPD well represented in those ranks. White’s arrest was defended by the captain of the 78th precinct, Frantz Souffrant.
Following White’s arrest, scofflaws took matters into their own hands. Gersh Kuntzman, the editor of Streetsblog, has posted dozens of videos on Twitter depicting himself committing “criminal mischief” by fixing one of the many defaced plates he finds while biking all over the city, intended to demonstrate the scale of the lawbreaking.
White, on the other hand, has exercised more caution in his plate hunting since being cuffed, lest he face another arrest or worse.
“I’ve continued to remove taped leaves, I’ve bent back plates that were bent to obstruct, I’ve fixed plates to be observable, if there’s schmutz or tape I’ve peeled off tape,” White said. “But beyond that, I don’t do it as often…I’m definitely a little more gun-shy about it, I’m a little more circumspect.”
This story was updated on Jan. 16, 2023 with comment from the NYPD.