David Evans, a 59-year-old New Yorker, was making a modest living working as a messenger and enjoying a state tax refund of $150 or $200. But in the last four years, his refund hasn't been coming through, Evans told CBS News.
Two years ago, he figured out where the money went. It was being sent to the New York City transit authority (NYCTA), which operates the city's subways and buses. After some digging, Evans found that there was an outstanding judgment against him for a debt totaling $1,900. Where did that debt originate? Ten tickets issued between 1999 and 2005.
"At the beginning I was baffled. Could this be me? Is this not me? Then I saw the numbers," Evans said.
In New York, you can get ticketed for entering the subway without paying, smoking on the platform or putting your feet up on a seat. But Evans doesn't remember getting the tickets, nor what they are for, he told CBS News.
Evans said he paid multiple visits to the NYCTA's enforcement office but he's never seen the tickets. When he asked to see the documentation against him that led to the judgments, Evans said, he was told these documents might not exist and that he would have to pay to see them—an amount upward of $400, according to a lawsuit Evans and another New York resident filed against the NYCTA.
"At no point have I ever seen the summons with my name on it, my signature, a date saying this and that happened. I've never seen anything. They say I have a ticket from a crossing guard, but I've never seen one," said Evans, who now lives on disability payments since ending his job last year.
The lawsuit, which is seeking class-action status, accuses the transit authority of bilking money from low-income New Yorkers without due process. In this case, due process would include seeing evidence about their supposed violations.
"We wonder why they would go after people on such old judgements when they don't have the documents to back it up," said Susan Shin, legal director for the New Economy Project. The nonprofit, whose mission to advocate for low-income New Yorkers, is one of three groups representing the plaintiffs.
The issue is wide-ranging. As of June 2015, the NYCTA had 1.7 million outstanding summons, totaling $380 million, according to a report from the New York State Comptroller.
Nationwide, $3 billion last year was diverted from tax refunds or other government payments to address delinquent debt, according to the U.S. Treasury. The most common reason was unpaid child support, the Treasury said, but unpaid taxes or benefit payments the government finds to be excessive can also be recovered from tax returns.
Even prominent high earners are not exempt. Stephen Moore, President Donald Trump's pick to serve on the Federal Reserve's Board of Governors,tied to past child-support and alimony deductions. A federal tax lien was filed against Moore in January 2018, saying the government had won the judgement against him.
The larger problem, said legal expert Shin, is the government might not be targeting the right people in its quest. During the time period Evans supposedly received NYCTA summons, he didn't have fixed housing, and spent some time in homeless shelters "where identity theft was a frequent occurrence," according to the suit.
Nathaniel Robinson, another plaintiff in the suit, had a tax refund seized for two alleged tickets issued in 1997 and 2003, which he doesn't recall. But when he asked the NYCTA for evidence that the tickets were addressed to him, the agency instead asked him to submit proof that he wasn't the person mentioned in the tickets, according to the suit, thus "requiring Mr. Robinson to rebut a document that he has never seen and [the agency] repeatedly refused to provide," the suit read.
Other residents have spoken about judgments against them going unnoticed for years until they apply for a credit card or a job and drag up an old summons in a background check. (One employee screening service touts credit reports as "offer[ing] valuable insight regarding the applicant's reliability and sense of responsibility.")
The New York City Transit Authority, which typically does not comment on litigation, did not comment for this story.
Evans hadn't yet filed his tax return for 2018 as of late March, and he's wary because of the outstanding judgment against him, which he suspects is the reason his bank rejected his applications for a credit card. These types of debts could be one reason that so many Americans don't file tax returns, according to some tax pros. The IRS estimates that more than a million taxpayers who had income during the year don't file returns.