“I am not your ordinary taxi driver,” Josef Mermelstein said, and in ways he is the anti-cabbie. New Yorkers complain that cabbies drive too fast. Mr. Mermelstein drives slowly. New Yorkers grouse that cabbies don’t know their way around. Mr. Mermelstein knows every landmark, including some, like the old Taft Hotel, that are no longer there.
Talk to any cabbie and he is likely to tell you that the Taxi and Limousine Commission courts are biased, or corrupt, or worse. The TLC judges accept the word of TLC inspectors or complaining passengers as Biblical Truth, while disregarding the testimony of taxi drivers as heresy.
Midnight. Mid-week. Mid-Universe. Cruising Times Square, Mark Allan, licensed taxi-driver and metaphysical poet, is halfway home.
OVER the past several decades, the scope and clout of the city’s administrative law courts have swelled to the point where there are now at least 500 administrative law judges scattered among a dozen agencies. While the judges hear very different kinds of cases, many of them face a conflict of interest: they are supposed to make independent judgments about the agencies that pay them.
Ebenezer Asamoah idled in his yellow cab at a red light on the corner of Delancey and Allen. When the light changed, he drove across the street and stopped for a burly man in a camouflage jacket who stood 20 feet past the intersection. The man got in. Then he ordered Asamoah to hand over his keys. This was neither a robbery nor a kidnapping–though it had elements of both.
News that New York City taxi drivers cheated passengers of some $8.3 million was shocking, especially to those familiar with the industry. It was, in fact, too shocking to be believed.
As an associate for a major Wall Street law firm, I had deposed Donald Trump. I had also litigated in landlord-tenant court. So I thought I knew something about blowhards and a little about due process. But I knew nothing, nothing until I encountered the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission.
The city of Portland, Oregon, has filed a lawsuit to block Uber from operating in its city. According to the Guardian, Uber started offering its low-cost Uber-X service, which, it seems, aims to used unlicensed cars and drivers not licensed as tax drivers to operate the service. Passengers would hail the non-taxis with the famed Uber app.
The Taxi and Limousine Commission seizes more than 9000 cars per year– all without a hearing and without a warrant. The TLC will give the car back to those who quickly plead guilty and pay $600. If you want to plead not guilty, you can get your car back if you pay $2000.
Now it has been revealed by reports in DNAInfo by James Fanelli and others and in the New York Post by Rebecca Harshbarger and Kathleen Cullito that the TLC lost almost 1,500 court hearings in 18 months in which TLC inspectors seized cars and falsely claimed they were illegal cabs. The TLC’s own tribunal dismissed 20 percent of the 7,187 cases involving illegal-cab violations, according to a TLC tribunal spokeswoman. The 20 percent figure almost certainly overstates the true error rate because many drivers plead guilty because they are told that doing so is the quickest and easiest way to get their car back.
The increase in rogue seizures, the Post says, came about because chiefs and captains bullied officers to seize as many cabs as possible. Many examples of inspectors making bonehead plays under pressure have been in the news, as have reports of inspectors being hounded to seize cars often on flimsy evidence.
As DNAInfo notes, TLC inspectors often seize cars where the driver or the passenger doesn’t speak English and the inspectors don’t have a translator to help understand the situation. Often inspectors don’t know or can’t be bothered with the rules, such as those that allow New Jersey of Long Island cabs to make pick ups outside New York City for trips into the City. Another common mistake is to seize cabs driven by chauffeurs or cars serving a particular business, neither or which need TLC licenses.
In another seizure gone awry, TLC inspectors ticketed a black man as an illegal cabbie after spotting him drop off a white passenger. That passenger turned out to be his wife, leading to a lawsuit in a Queens county court, according reports in the Daily News. and in DNAinfo.
The Queens couple, Dan Keys Jr., 66, and Symone Palermo, 53, filed a racial bias action (claiming a whopping $3 million in damages) against the city and the Taxi and Limousine Commission, claiming they were unlawfully targeted on May 2013 by agents who assumed that a black man dropping off a white woman must be a cabdriver, or, in this case an unlicensed cabdriver providing an illegal ride.
This is the third black eye in a week for the TLC aggressive car seizure program, the first being an claim by one of the TLC’s own inspectors that his agency acts recklessly in issuing summons, the second being a summons and car seizure of a driver who gives free rides to cancer patients.
in the latest case, the husband and wife both received summonses — the wife was ticketed as the registered owner of the car — and the agents allegedly continued the charade to cover up their mistake, according to court papers.
While the TLC-issued summonses were dismissed, the couple lost use of the car for a week.
TLC mouthpiece Alan Fromberg, who is rarely at a loss when denouncing drivers, refused comment.
In the past the TLC has boasted that it seizes 8000 cars annually, and that it is looking to increase that number.