ORLANDO, FLA. – Patrick Curley's high school buddies gathered around the TV last week to see their televised debut. The teenagers giggled as they watched themselves tell Good Morning America's Diane Sawyer how the limousine driver who took them to their prom last Saturday night was arrested and charged with driving under the influence. But Patrick's dad, Robert Curley, said he learned a serious lesson.
If he hires a limousine when his two younger teenage sons attend their proms, he said, "I think we will do a little more due diligence on the company we get."
That may not be so easy. Few local governments in Central Florida regulate drivers of vehicles for hire such as limousines, and even those that do, have limited background checks.
Christina Tomacelli, 49, the limo driver arrested April 9 while ferrying Patrick, 18, and other Winter Springs High School students to prom, had a vehicle-for-hire driver permit from Orlando despite a 1992 DUI charge and several traffic infractions. Tomacelli is a driver for A Selective Limousine & Transportation in Orlando, Fla.
Seminole County deputies arrested Tomacelli after Patrick used his cell phone to call his father from the limo to tell him about her erratic driving. The students, who persuaded Tomacelli to pull over, said she drove through stop signs, cut off traffic and couldn't figure out where she was going.
The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles records show Tomacelli had her license revoked for six months as a result of the DUI charge in Miami-Dade County. Her license was simultaneously suspended for a year because she refused to take a breath test.
Despite that incident and the more recent traffic infractions, Tomacelli got the permit in 2003 from Orlando, one of the few Central Florida governments that require special permits for limousine and taxi drivers picking up passengers within city limits.
The city requires driver background checks with the goal of weeding out those who have been convicted of crimes, including DUIs, drug crimes or sex crimes. But the background checks go back only five years and do not look outside Florida, said Curt Faust, a supervisor with Orlando's vehicle-for-hire program.
Faust said performing more extensive reviews "would be very costly for the drivers" who pay for them.
Osceola County also does background checks and it has no time limit on how far back to check. However, the checks are limited to Florida.
Orange and Seminole counties have no permitting process, although the Orange County Convention Center requires permits, background checks and vehicle inspections for taxis.
"There really isn't much enforcement," said Randy Terranova, president of the Greater Orlando Livery Association. "Only when issues like this come about. Then everybody wants answers."
Fran Shane, executive director of the National Limousine Association, questioned whether a DUI many years ago should keep someone from driving for a limousine service today.
"If somebody had a DUI 15 years ago and has gone through treatment and has lived a straight life, are they never forgiven?" Shane asked. "How many years are enough?"
Tomacelli had more recent traffic tickets but those would not have had a bearing on whether she got a permit from the city, said Faust, whose employees focus more on catching and fining illegally operating taxis than limousines.
Officials representing limousine companies said they have tried – and failed – to get a statewide system of permitting and regulating drivers.
Even if a company doesn't operate in a place where drivers must get special permits, limousine association officials said, insurance companies generally require a check of driving records.
Business owners and insurance companies have an interest in making sure the drivers are safe, Shane said, because "these cars are expensive.
"There's no greater regulation than the guy who owns the company," Shane said. "You put unsafe cars on the street, you're not going to get repeat business. . . The customer and the free-market system really regulates those limousines."
In 2003, Florida DMV records show seven cases in which the driver of an automobile transporting commercial passengers was found to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs when involved in a crash.
There have been other incidents involving limousine drivers apparently drunk while taking high school students to a prom. They include a case in 2000, when police arrested a New York limousine driver on suspicion of drunken driving. His prom-night passengers also called the police by cell phone to report his erratic driving.
Parents rent prom-night limousines as a safety precaution. Teenagers like riding in them on prom night for the sophistication it adds to the event.
"It's real important that everybody be around when the limousine drops them off and picks them up," Winter Springs High School Principal Michael Blasewitz said.
Limousine association officials recommend that people hiring limousines ask for references and make sure the company belongs to a trade organization, such as the Greater Orlando Livery Association. A Selective Limousine & Transportation and Elegant Limousine, the company that A Selective farmed out the job to, are both members of the association, an Internet search indicates. Interested parties can also check with the city of Orlando, which keeps records of complaints against the limousine companies it permits.
But sometimes, parents may not know who's really transporting their kids. The Curleys said they had contacted A Selective Limousine & Transportation and didn't realize the company, swamped with customers, turned the job over to Elegant Limousine of Altamonte Springs. Officials of both companies could not be reached for comment. Terranova said that during busy times such as prom season, companies will farm out jobs.