Fare Justice?

At the D.C. Taxicab Commission, the customer is always—always—right.

Jo Ann Lawrence did not wear baggy pants that night. She had her shirt neatly tucked and her shoes appropriately laced. But her appearance must have become menacing as she waited in vain for the G2 bus to appear at 16th and P Streets NW last July 28. She decided she had waited long enough. When a taxicab stopped for the next red light, Lawrence approached it.

The cabbie declined her fare. Lawrence challenged the driver, telling him she believed he was refusing because of her race. “I told the cab driver where I wanted to go, and he immediately and impolitely said, ‘You black people I will take,’” she later recalled in a written statement. But he still wouldn’t let her into his cab. Lawrence threatened to report the driver to the D.C. Taxicab Commission, the regulatory agency that imposes penalties on errant hackers, from fines up to license revokation. The driver launched into a long explanation, even pulling up to the curb and offering to take Lawrence if she wouldn’t mind a pit stop for gas. Disgusted by his attitude, she flatly refused, she says. The D.C. Taxicab Commission received her complaint letter the next day.

Lawrence’s racial-discrimination allegation is one of hundreds of complaints lodged against D.C. cabbies each year. D.C. Taxicab Commission legal counsel and Interim Chair George W. Crawford says that the commission receives approximately 10 complaints per week from passengers accusing cabbies of a range of infractions. The majority write to the commission about racial or so-called geographic discrimination, in which a driver refuses a fare on the basis of destination. The practice violates D.C. taxicab regulations, as the “Passenger’s Rights” card required to be displayed in all cabs clearly attests.

More than five months after Lawrence expressed her displeasure to the D.C. Taxicab Commission, the cabdriver in question, Michael Owoeye, finally received a letter from the commission notifying him of her complaint and offering him a chance to rebut it at a hearing. (D.C. municipal regulations state that a driver should receive notice within 10 days of a complaint’s being filed.) At the hearing, Owoeye found out what many other cabbies have also learned the hard way: When it comes to the Taxicab Commission, there’s only one side to every story—the passenger’s.

“I rolled down my window and informed her I was off-duty and was heading home,” Owoeye read Feb. 8 to hearing examiner William C. Fesson Jr., from a three-page statement he had filed in response to Lawrence’s complaint. “She was furious and said, ‘Cab-drivers don’t want to pick blacks up.’ I disputed the claim and said, ‘I don’t do it.’” Owoeye explained that he had his “Off Duty” sign displayed in the front window and his cruising light off when he encountered Lawrence. “I pick everybody up,” he reiterated.

Fesson remained unconvinced and ruled against Owoeye. He fined the cabbie $250 for refusal to haul.

At the Taxicab Commission, passenger complaints almost always turn into driver convictions. A Washington City Paper review of three months of cases found that the commission ruled in favor of the passenger every time, even when the basic facts of the case were in dispute. “If a passenger or hack inspector says something, that’s all they need—you’re dead,” says D.C. Professional Taxicab Drivers Association Chair Nathan H. Price, who says he has in the past defended drivers in front of Fesson. “You’re not innocent until proven guilty—you’re guilty.”

Fesson is the Antonin Scalia of the D.C. Taxicab Commission. But unlike the Supreme Court justice’s opinions, Fesson’s strict interpretation of D.C. regulations always triumphs—which means that the customer is almost always right and the cabbie is almost always wrong. Drivers contend that Fesson’s literal interpretation sometimes ignores the spirit of the law and the rights of drivers. “The rules are relatively ambiguous,” argues Price. “[The commission] generally rules by the letter instead of the intent of the law.”

And Fesson makes all these conclusions without benefit of a J.D. He’s been a hearing examiner with the commission since 1987, though he experienced a three-year hiatus in the ’90s because of budget cuts. He’s now the Taxicab Commission’s only hearing examiner. Though drivers may appeal cases to a three-member commission panel and even up to the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, Fesson proudly states that he’s never been overturned.

In most instances, Fesson hardly needs a law clerk to establish legal precedent. D.C. Municipal Code 819.5 states, “No taxicab operator shall refuse to transport a person while holding his or her taxicab for hire…” So when driver Paul Ford refused to take passenger Rondell C. Ford (no relation) from downtown to the 4200 block of 7th Street SE one weekday afternoon last fall, Fesson fined the driver $250.

Paul Ford’s explanation did little for his defense. “[M]y reason for not transporting the passenger…was I was simply afraid, and he was carrying a back-pack which made me doubly afraid,” wrote Ford. “I was recently robbed…in Ward 4 and I was afraid to go to a section of SE that I was not familiar with.”

D.C. law lists four exceptions to Municipal Regulation 819.5, one of which states that a cabbie may refuse a fare if “the operator has cause to fear injury to his or her person, property or taxicab.” Although Ford didn’t make a compelling argument for an exception, other cabbies feel that the commission’s generally dismissive attitude belittles more legitimate safety concerns.

“There are guys from Georgetown University Medical School with stethoscopes in their backpacks,” says Crawford, reviewing Ford’s case file at the commission offices at 2041 Martin Luther King Ave. SE. “The law says ‘fear,’ like, ‘I saw the back handle of a gun sticking out.’…What, is this driver scared of people that read?’”

“Ooh, ooh, he’s going to pull out a book!” Fesson interjects. Fesson and Crawford share a hearty laugh at the idea.

The commission’s brushoff angers many cabbies, who argue that the agency presumes their guilt. According to a U.S. Department of Labor study, taxicab driving is the most dangerous profession in the U.S., with a higher homicide rate than that of police officers.

Following the murders of D.C. cabbies Larry Barnes and Beautford Garrett on the job this winter, newly appointed D.C. Taxicab Commissioner Sandra Seegars latched onto fear exemption and endorsed a practice of “clothing profiling” in selecting fares and travel in what she termed “dangerous” areas. “People don’t like to admit that, but the ostrich syndrome must go,” Seegars wrote in a Jan. 23 Washington Post Outlook piece explaining her position.

The remarks attracted national press coverage and drew attention to racial profiling in the taxicab industry. Seegars admits that some cabdrivers clearly violate the law and should be punished. She says that she has even reported violations gathered in her own “stings” to the commission, which has failed to followup on the complaints. On the other hand, Seegars argues, a few bad apples should not deny the District’s estimated 6,200 drivers fair hearings.

Southwest resident Walter Thomas wrote to the commission last November that driver Saleem Khan had refused taxicab service to black passengers numerous times when he worked the cab stand near Hogate’s restaurant on the Southwest waterfront. “One would have to witness respondent in action to really understand how disruptive he is as he directs the other taxi drivers away from black customers,” Thomas wrote to the commission, which included Thomas’ statement in the “Findings of Fact” for the case.

Khan denied the charge, and his case jacket includes six letters from regular patrons and colleagues testifying to his character. “Saleem A. Khan…has not shown any discrimination to any race or color to our guest or employees,” wrote Reggie Bumphus, a manager at Hogate’s. “I personally have witnessed his non-discriminatory action toward patrons coming toward his cab.”

Khan needn’t have bothered. The commission fined him $250 for refusal to haul and $50 for not having properly filled out his manifest, or driver’s log.

The majority of drivers put far less effort into their defenses. They claim lackluster excuses, such as traffic, family commitments, and even a strong need “to use the restroom badly” as reasons they have refused fares.

But cabbies do have one other way to avoid a fine: Pray the complainant doesn’t appear for the hearing. On March 27, three cabdrivers showed up to give their testimony in complaints against them. Two cases on the docket alleged racial discrimination, one geographic discrimination. None of the complainants appeared. Fesson dismissed all three cases in less than 10 minutes.

Though sticklers for the law when it comes to cabbies, the D.C. Taxicab Commission seems to take a more carefree attitude when it comes to its own business practices. On Wednesday March 29, At-Large Councilmember and Committee on Public Works Chair Carol Schwartz held an oversight hearing on the commission’s budget. Schwartz pounded Interim Chair Crawford for an unauthorized spending of the Taxicab Assessment Fund, to which drivers contribute $50 a year to help subsidize the regulation of their own industry. Last year, the D.C. Council reduced the amount of fund money the commission could spend by $130,000. The commission allocated—and at this point has partially spent—the rest of the money anyway.

“The amount passed in the budget is the maximum amount [the commission can spend],” Schwartz reprimanded Crawford, reading from an official opinion by the D.C. Council’s legal counsel. “I don’t like being ignored.”

Schwartz didn’t focus on the assessment fund by chance. A 1995 review of the fund by the D.C. auditor found a number of improprieties, including a $12,949 expense commissioners charged for a three-day “out-of-town” retreat near Dulles International Airport. According to municipal regulations, assessment fund monies may be earmarked only for purposes such as driver training and hack inspection.

The D.C. auditor is now conducting another audit of commission expenditures.

The commission has had other blemishes as well. In 1998, former Chief of Operations Ronald Stokes was nabbed for illegally selling operating permits. The black-market operation put many unqualified drivers on the road.

Crawford argues that the massive budget cuts in the ’90s decimated the commission’s staff, making regulation of the industry extremely difficult. But, as Schwartz hinted in the hearing, Crawford might want to exert a little more oversight over his current budget. For example, Schwartz pointed out, even though the commission got its second-floor office’s rent reduced from $164,000 a year, the current rent of $95,000 still seems high for Martin Luther King Avenue SE.

Schwartz also asked Crawford to list all the commission employees and their responsibilities. Aside from Crawford, the commissioners do not receive pay for their work. Fesson, on the other hand, receives almost $50,000 as a contractor for hearing cases and writing up largely pro forma orders. In the past, Schwartz noted, the commission used to get attorneys to hear the cases and rule on the cases pro bono.

“We’ve been trying to clean up the industry for eight or nine years now,” complains Price. “The biggest obstacle is the D.C. government.” CP