Cab drivers say they are being targeted by police patrolling three major roads in Northeast D.C. and they are pointing the finger primarily at one officer.
Cab company executives and individual drivers say police are writing questionable tickets for violations of the D.C. taxi code in order to raise revenue, not to ensure public safety or consumer protections.
Officers in the Metropolitan Police Department’s Fifth District were responsible for writing 1,368 tickets to cabbies from Jan. through Oct. 2015, more than three times the 394 tickets written in the city’s other six police districts combined, according to data obtained by the Teamsters Union Local 922 and shared with WAMU 88.5. The Teamsters’ lawyers are defending the drivers in court, claiming many of the tickets are bogus.
A single traffic cop, Officer Thomas Krmenec, wrote 842 of the 1,368 tickets.
Three busy roads
The Fifth District’s work resulted in fines of $250,000, dwarfing the penalties handed out to cabbies by MPD officers in all other districts, which came to less than $50,000. Even districts covering parts of downtown Washington, where cabbies spend much of their time, saw relatively few violations written by police who, along with the D.C. Taxicab Commission’s hack inspectors, are responsible for enforcing the taxi code.
The Fifth District traffic stops primarily took place on three busy roadways where cab companies have their offices: Bladensburg Road, New York Avenue, and Rhode Island Avenue.
“I think he is profiling cab drivers,” said long-time cabbie Jesse Black. Black got four tickets from Krmenec during a traffic stop last year resulting in $200 in fines.
The department provided data designed to show Officer Krmenec is not disproportionately targeting cabs as he enforces all traffic laws, not just the taxi code. For instance, in January 2015 he ticketed 145 motorists of whom only 29 were cabbies or limo drivers. Through the first ten months of last year, he pulled over 1,255 motorists. Only 17 percent were vehicles-for-hire.
Krmenec wrote thousands of traffic tickets for moving violations involving regular motorists as well as cabbies, but a precise breakdown of the data was not available. The Teamsters’ requests to the Department of Motor Vehicles for these records were unsuccessful.
D.C. police may pull over a taxi without cause. As commercial vehicles, cabs are subject to inspection and their drivers must maintain several documents to comply with current regulations, including written logs, face cards, proof of insurance, and other paperwork.
The Fifth District commander, William Fitzgerald, did not respond to requests for comment on the accusations by taxi drivers and cab companies. However, Lt. Sean Conboy, a spokesman for the MPD, said in a written statement, “The Fifth District conducts traffic enforcement in the same manner as other districts.”
“I avoid this area now like the plague.”
The Teamsters contend the drivers are being picked on because they are an easy revenue stream. Police know many drivers would rather just pay a ticket because challenging one often requires taking a half or full day off from work to go to court, union officials said.
“You have to ask yourself, what are the enforcement priorities of a police district?” said the Teamsters’ attorney Royale Simms, who is helping drivers challenge their tickets. “I think it is an abuse of the officer’s discretion. It’s an abuse of his power.”
In several interviews cabbies described similar sets of circumstances: a police cruiser traveling in the opposite direction makes a U-turn to swing around behind them, the officer pulls them over and accuses them of failing to wear a seat belt, leading to an inspection of their taxis and multiple tickets.
Black, who has been driving a cab 40 years, said he knew he would receive a citation for a dirty cab, based on Krmenec’s reputation, even though he had just come from a car wash. But he says he had a tote bag and jacket folded in his otherwise empty trunk. That was enough for the officer to cite him, said Black, who is affiliated with the Yellow Cab Company on Bladensburg Road.
“I avoid this area now like the plague. I don’t service the area. I don’t take calls over here,” said Black, who is fighting his four tickets in court. So far, he has lost two challenges.
His ticket for not wearing a seat belt was upheld by an administrative hearing officer who said Title 18 of the D.C. code requires all motorists to be belted. Black argued the ticket should have been thrown out because after 6 p.m. cab drivers are exempt from wearing seat belts while on duty under the taxi regulations (Title 31). Black maintains he was wearing a seat belt anyway, and he accused Krmenec of using it as an excuse to pull him over.
In an iPhone recording of the traffic stop recorded and provided by Black, a voice identified by Black as Officer Krmenec is heard saying, “Can I finish looking at your documents before I tell you why I pulled you over? You already know I don’t have to have a reason to pull you over. You are a vehicle for hire.”
Moments later the man identified as Krmenec says, “You weren’t wearing a seat belt when you passed me.”
“Some level of harassment”
Yellow Cab’s general manager, Roy Spooner, said it is common knowledge that police officers sit nearby the cab lots in Northeast D.C. and wait for drivers to pull out before pouncing.
“I have walked out of my office and seen the cop sitting in a car right across the street from us,” Spooner said. “Taking a look at the tickets, you can see there is some level of harassment here.”
As a result, some drivers are avoiding the neighborhood, Spooner said. Two other cab companies on Bladensburg Road have a similar complaint: the police presence is not new, but the enforcement seems to have increased in the past year or so.
“I am starting to feel a financial impact as a result of the practices of these officers,” wrote Metropolitan Cab owner Massoud Hassani in a letter to the Teamsters.
“Unfortunately, for some time now, I have observed and heard complaints from my customers (cab drivers) that there is profiling and harassment going on in our immediate vicinity…it discourages my customers from patronage, in order to avoid contact with specific officers, namely Officer Krmenec and Officer Zapata,” Hassani wrote.
Ali Tahmaseb, the general manager of VIP Cab on Bladensburg Road, wrote “… the drivers are getting harassed by the police officers in our immediate vicinity and in Ward 5 in general. This is causing the drivers to avoid coming to this neighborhood.”
Six tickets, $1,300 in fines
Some cabbies say the fines are threatening their livelihoods at a time when they are struggling to compete with lower cost transportation options Uber and Lyft. The Teamsters have won some cases so far, but many have yet to go to court.
“A ticket for $100 is an entire day’s earnings for a taxi driver. So what type of stress do you have in your life when you get tickets for $1,300?” asked the Teamsters’ Simms.
Cabbie Dorothy Osei-Kuffuor can answer that question. She was pulled over by Krmenec last year and was cited for six taxi code violations totaling $1,300 in fines.
Even worse, her cab was towed after she failed to promptly produce her insurance documents, mistakenly handing the officer an old receipt at first, she said. By the time she found the correct paperwork, it was too late, she said.
“He was yelling and scaring me. He was just a bully,” said Osei-Kuffuor. “Believe me, my heart was pumping when he was talking to me, because he scared me by telling me he was going to tow my car on a rainy Friday morning.”
She and other cabbies have received $500 tickets for a violation known as failure to comply with a compliance order. That could be an order from a police officer to move a vehicle from the roadway or to immediately produce for inspection a device or licensing document. In Osei-Kuffuor’s case, handing over the wrong insurance document was enough to trigger the violation.
Yellow Cab’s Roy Spooner calls this practice “absurd.”
“It is basically saying that you have failed to comply with some order when the driver is trying to provide the officer with everything. No one has refused to provide anything to the officer.”
Eight tickets issued, eight thrown out
In 2011, taxi driver Ahmed Hassan was pulled over by Krmenec and another officer.
“He made a U-turn to get on my side of the street and told me he was going to inspect my cab. I said, why? He said because of my seat belt,” recalled Hassan in an interview.
It was after 6 p.m., so Hassan was allowed under Title 31 to drive without his belt on, but the officers did not accept his explanation.
By the time the traffic stop was over he had eight violations totaling more than $2,000 in fines, but he had more serious legal troubles. Krmenec accused Hassan of shoving him and charged Hassan with assaulting a police officer.
“When I got out of the cab [Krmenec] ran up to me and started pushing me back in the car,” said Hassan. “But I have rheumatoid arthritis so I couldn’t sit down and just plop down like he wanted. To make a long story short, I ran.”
In D.C. Superior Court, Hassan admitted he ran from the police, but the judge did not find Krmenec’s version of events credible, according to a trial transcript. Hassan was found not guilty and all eight of his tickets were thrown out. [MORE]