How to Avoid Arrest (in Your Own Shop)

By Mike Hong

Rui Ling Ma was almost arrested inside his own gift shop on Mott Street in Manhattan’s Chinatown, because of two pairs of $4.99 slide sandals on the shelf.
In January, an undercover cop from the NYPD Manhattan South Peddler Task Force showed up in Ma’s gift shop, and told him that the sandals were counterfeits of Adidas, with a color stripe and shape very similar to those produced by the sporting goods company. “He said I’m in violation of trademark,” Ma said. Then the cop took out handcuffs, intending to arrest him.
“I purchased these sandals from a wholesaler in Midtown, I saw these sold everywhere. There is no trademark on the sandals. How is this one related to Adidas?” Ma argued. He said he told the undercover policeman: “I run a business. If I intended to sell fake (goods), I would hide what I was selling. There are only two pairs in my shop and I sell them for $4.99.” Ma said he tried hard to explain himself in non-fluent English. This time he got lucky: at the end, instead of an arrest, he only got a warning.
However, in Ma’s words, this kind of incident “happens all the time” to gift shops owners in Chinatown, the majority of whom are Chinese immigrants. Unlike Ma, most of the time they are unlucky. “We only pick items from a categories book provided by wholesalers. Which ones violate trademark protection and which ones do not, we are blind, we don’t know. The only time we could find out was when the task force came in and arrest or fine us,” Ma said. At the 5th Precinct’s monthly community council meeting held at the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association in February, on behalf of more than 20 gift shops owners, Ma brought a petition signed by them asking the local precinct as well as community advocates and elected officials to address this issue.
In response, Rep. Nydia Velazquez hosted a workshop for these gift shop owners in Chinatown’s Lin Sing Association on March 30, bringing together the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA), the local police precinct and trademark experts in an effort to propose a solution. During the workshop, the representatives from DCA provided these small business owners with checklists and tips to avoid violations that could result in heavy fines and even arrests. However, when it came to the issue of trademark violation, the answer Ma and his fellow merchants obtained was unsatisfactory.
“As a retailer, you must be cautious of what you buy from the wholesalers,” said James Ricaurte, the president of Allegiance Protection Group (APG). APG is a private investigation firm which works with brand companies and law enforcement to identify and dismantle illegally copied brands and products. “Just because the products have been sold in Midtown doesn’t make everything legitimate,” Ricaurte said. “If you are not certain, if it looks confusing to you, then stay away from it.”
Brain Brokate, an intellectual property attorney, also suggested to these confused owners that the best way to shield themselves from potential liability was to be extremely cautious about whom they buy from: “My advice is: If you want to make sure whether or not you can sell these goods, where you purchase these items, ask them.”
“We have hundreds of items in the shop and how can we identify each of them, that this can be sold but this can’t be?” Ma said. He asked the investigators and lawyers working for brand companies for a simpler solution. “You have information from big companies,” he said. “You should put a checklist on a website, or Facebook, whatever, so that we can know ‘oh, they have already warned us, this we can’t buy and sell.’ We are small businesses, we can’t be trademark experts like you guys.”
However, Harry Cheng, the trademark investigator of APG, told them this is not feasible. “It’s impossible for a company which makes shoes, belts, wallets, keychains…to list everything, “ said Cheng. Local law enforcement representatives agreed. The commanding officer of the 5th precinct, Deputy Inspector Tommy Ng, explained the actions taken by law enforcement: “When the company makes a trademark violation complaint to the police department, the police must take action.” He also pointed out that it’s the owner’s responsibility to conduct the research, know the product and do the double checking themselves, “because every item sold in your store is ordered by yourself.”
Fred Riley, the senior community relations coordinator for the Department of Consumer Affairs, said at the hearing that “a few years ago, there was no checklist for inspection, there was no website in multiple languages for small business owners to learn what to do, there was no pre-opening inspection…the city has definitely taken a lot of steps to make things more simplified.”
Just one day before the workshop, the New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer released a report from the Red Tape Commission, which called for more help and communication for small businesses in the city. “Small businesses are the backbone of our city’s economy, but too often government is a barrier, not a partner, in helping them grow,” Comptroller Stringer said at the press conference. In the report, one of the commission’s major recommendations is helping business owners to learn how to comply with rules and regulations rather than enforcing punishment.Feeling that the workshop had not resolved matters, Ma was looking forward to the promised second one that might have more participating agencies such as the NYPD Manhattan South Peddler Task Force and the district attorney’s office. “We need more education and information, not just for them to come in and then handcuff us.” Ma said.
“The small businesses here want to do legitimate business,” said Don Lee, who has advocated on behalf of several Chinatown street vendors and shop owners. “Please go and talk to them, give them a chance. All they want to do is wake up in the morning, go out there to make a living to support their family.”

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Posted by on Apr 11 2016. Filed under Community News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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