For many of us, public transport is a convenient and relatively affordable way to travel.
But those who don’t follow rules of common courtesy on trains and buses can be a source of annoyance for some passengers.
The selfish habit of sitting with one’s knees far apart, and thereby taking up more space than necessary, has attracted the ire of fellow passengers. It has even acquired its own name: ‘man-spreading’, as observers noted that men were more likely to exhibit this behaviour than women.
Man-spreading, once relegated to the domain of public etiquette, could previously earn you disapproving stares and perhaps the label of selfish by other passengers – but users of the ‘man-spread’ could now face the full weight of the law – at least in New York.
New York Anti-‘man-spreading’ laws
In January, the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority introduced a posting depicting a man engaging in such behaviour while two other passengers stand nearby, with the words: “Dude… Stop the Spread, Please. It’s a space issue.”
The MTA’s Rules of Conduct lists ‘man-spreading’ as a form of disorderly conduct.
In technical terms, passengers are banned from: “occupy[ing] more than one seat on a station, platform or conveyance when to do so would interfere or tend to interfere with the operation of the Authority’s transit system or the comfort of other passengers.”
Breaking this rule could get you kicked off, or even lead to civil or criminal prosecution.
Under section 1050.10 of the Rules of Conduct, the maximum penalty is a $25 fine and/or ten days imprisonment. For civil penalties imposed by the transit adjudication bureau, the maximum penalty is $100.
Two men arrested for this offence appeared in court just days ago.
But the judge expressed skepticism about the legitimacy of the charges, noting that the arrests occurred just after midnight when the train was not crowded and that it was unlikely other passengers would have been affected by the conduct.
The judge adjourned the case in contemplation of dismissal (an ‘ACD’), which works a little like a NSW section 10 bond, meaning that the charges are likely to be dismissed if the two men behave themselves during the period of the bond.
The real agenda
The two men charged were Latino, and there have been suggestions that the charges were motivated by either racism or a need to meet arrest quotas, or both.
Director of Police Reform Organising Project, Robert Gangi, says that police are under pressure to meet quotas for productivity goals and to raise revenue.
As you might expect, the integrity of any criminal justice system is compromised when there is pressure to meet quotas. Some have criticised the misuse of police resources: pointing out that while the murder rate is up 25% this year, people are being arrested for minor infractions like ‘man-spreading.’ Gangi states that quotas are counter-productive in a range of ways, and can undermine respect for police and the justice system generally.
It is easy to see how laws like man-spreading could be used to target socioeconomically disadvantaged or other vulnerable people, giving police an easy way to bully people that they don’t like. The MTA Rules of Conduct are comprehensive, and it is easy to see how a person could breach a rule without even realising it exists.
So instead of being that triumph of justice, it seems that criminalising trivial conduct like man-spreading can do more harm than good.