NYS Supreme Court Rules on Behalf of Street Vendor


Munnu Dewan, street food vendor
Munnu Dewan is an immigrant from Bangladesh, who has been eking out a living selling hot dogs and pretzels from a small cart downtown for 16 years. In 2004, he was cited for “failing to protect food from contamination,” by allegedly covering uncooked hot dogs with a piece of cardboard rather than with plastic wrap (a charge he denies).

So Dewan goes to his hearing, at the NYC Environmental Control Board. The health inspector, there to testify against him, speaks English. So does the judge. Dewan, on the other hand, does not speak English well, and there are no translation services provided for him. Predictably, Dewan is unable to defend himself, and he is convicted of the charge. (Violent criminals, on the other hand, are guaranteed translation services.)

A $300 fine might not seem like such a big deal, but many vendors, like Dewan, make under $10,000 a year. And there were 59,000 cases against street vendors last year, many of whom are recent immigrants who may not speak good English. Even non-health-related violations– like being too close to a curb, or wearing your license under your coat in cold weather–can bring up to $1,000 fines, or up to 10 percent of a vendor’s yearly income.

What happened to Dewan, after the jump.

So with the help of the Street Vendor Project, Dewan appeals the verdict, on the grounds that he wasn’t able to communicate on his own behalf. The Environmental Control Board denies the appeal, saying that it thinks that Dewan totally understood what was going on.

Here’s a bit of the transcript from the original hearing, so you can decide for yourself.

ALJ is the administrative law judge, IO is the issuing officer (the guy who gave the ticket) and R is respondent, Munnu Dewan.

ALJ: Alright, sir. What would you like to tell me? Do you want to ask him any questions?

R: He said I have hotdog box wrapped down, and this is a bowl. Bowl loose hot dog. And package…

ALJ: A what?

R: Bowl. This is basket, bowl.

ALJ: Ball?

R: Yeah.

ALJ: Bag?

R: No. No bag. This is…

ALJ: A cylinder?

IO: I think he mean “ball.”

R: No, no. No ball. This is a plastic…

It goes on like that for a long time. Stuff like this apparently happens all the time, with vendors facing crippling fines, showing up at hearings at which there’s no way that they can defend themselves, or maybe even understand the violation they’re being accused of.

To be fair, the New York City Council passed a law this August, ruling that all defendants at the Environmental Control Board hearings must have access to interpretors. But a spokeswoman for the Street Vendor Project told me that they’re hearing mixed results–sometimes a vendor will have access to a translator, and sometimes not. In any case, the ruling came too late for vendors like Dewan, whose hearings happened before this summer.

But this week, after a four-year legal battle, the State Supreme Court ruled that Dewan was wrongly denied translation services, and ordered that he should be given a new hearing, this time with a translator.

So we’ll finally hear what he has to say.