Going After Gypsy Operators in San Francisco

Posted on August 29, 2008 by LCT Staff - Also by this author - About the author

Hal Mellegard hopes that one day customers who dial the 411 information line will actually get the number for the taxi company he's the general manager for, Yellow Cab Cooperative of San Francisco, which markets itself as "The Only Legal Yellow Cab in SF."

The source of his optimism is a bill from state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, that would allow local taxi regulators to disconnect the telephone lines of "bandit" taxicabs operating without proper certification and fine them up to $5,000.

The bill is before Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger after being approved by the Senate 26-11 this week. The governor has until Sept. 30 to sign or veto SB1519, although he has said he will not sign any bills until legislators agree on a state budget.

Yee sees the bill as a means to address a public safety threat posed by unregulated cabs that don't undergo safety inspections, require drug testing of their drivers or have proper insurance.

"Unfortunately, in many jurisdictions there are as many illegal taxicabs as legal ones," Yee said. "Taking away their phone number rightfully ends the source of much of their business."

Such illegal cabs, which often paint their cars with colors and logos that mimic legitimate companies, also take business from companies that follow the law, Yee and others said.

"You can call 411 and you won't get our number. Even if you ask for the first three, you won't get ours," Mellegard said. "These guys who are calling themselves, in our case, Yellow Cab often don't have insurance, they're not inspected and their meters are not inspected."

On a recent day, a call to 411 for the number of Yellow Cab in San Francisco produced a phone number for a taxi service in South San Francisco. The man who answered there said the company was "a Yellow Cab" company. A search of the yellow pages reveals the likes of A1 Yellow Cab, Yellow Cab AAA and Cab Yallow. None of those are authorized to operate in San Francisco, according to city officials.

Jordanna Thigpen, executive director of the San Francisco Taxi Commission, which regulates cab companies and drivers, estimates there are at least 500 to 1,000 unregulated cabs in San Francisco. That includes cabs licensed in other cities that illegally operate in San Francisco as well as limousine or car drivers who illegally solicit fares off the street. In Los Angeles, there are approximately 2,000 illegally operating cabs, according to Yee's office.

"It's a really big problem," Thigpen said. "Black Town Cars come in from all counties. They come in here and prey on our business and move on to their own communities."

The Taxi Commission funds weekly sting operations by San Francisco police to catch bandit cab drivers and others, but light penalties made it difficult to make headway, Thigpen said.

'People are laughing' "There needs to be higher penalties for these types of violations. People are laughing," Thigpen said. "One of the tickets is a $100. It's the cost of doing business."

She called Yee's bill "a great start," but called for more regulation from the state Public Utilities Commission, which oversees limousine drivers.

Yee's bill allows local taxi regulating bodies to conduct a hearing on taxi violations and then get a judge's order to shut down phone service for violators.

AT&T spokesman Gordon Diamond said his company had not taken a position on the bill, adding: "Certainly, if we were ordered to do so, we would be required to follow the law."

Skeptics said Yee's bill may lead to disconnected phones, but it doesn't address issues like illegitimate cabs painting their vehicles to look like real taxis, which is not illegal, or soliciting customers on the street.

"The phone line really for them is not the main artery for business," said Henry Royt, an executive at Independent Cab Co. in Los Angeles. "Most of their business is from flag-downs on the street or they establish clientele who call them directly on their cell phone."

Beyond siphoning money from legitimate cab companies, bandit cabs pose serious public safety risks, officials said.

Yee's staff pointed to a 1999 crash in Los Angeles that left six people dead after a bandit cab driver with drunken driving convictions and a suspended driver's license tried to beat a train across the tracks and failed, killing everyone in the cab.

'Bandit' cabbie convicted In San Francisco, bandit cab driver Jerry Cabonce was accused of shooting a women and her young child with a pellet gun in August 2003, then of trying to fatally stab two police officers when they went to his Daly City home to question him about the shooting. Cabonce was sentenced in March 2007 to 79 years to life in prison in the case after being convicted of attempted murder and assault.

Thigpen said a woman was raped in San Francisco last year after she got into what she thought was legitimate cab. The driver took her to a remote location where two other people were waiting. Those two held the woman down while the driver raped her, Thigpen said.

"I was just aghast," Thigpen said. "Do not take an unregulated vehicle anywhere. It's the equivalent of hitchhiking."

Spotting the legits How to spot a legitimate San Francisco taxi:

-- Side and rear of cab will say "San Francisco Taxicab."

-- Small metal "license plate" on the dashboard.

-- Driver's ID visible from back seat.

For limousines:

-- Limousine rides must be prearranged by phone or in writing.

-- Look for the TCP number on the front and rear bumpers.

-- Ask for the driver's business card and receipt before departing.

-- Limo drivers are forbidden to solicit customers.

Sources: SF Taxi Commission; SF Chronicle

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