0

Illegal cab crackdown continues

LAWRENCEVILLE - Just as it did with illicit massage parlors three years ago, Gwinnett County is tightening its regulations for taxicabs.

The move comes as authorities continue to crack down on cabs operating illegally in the unincorporated county.

Since May, the Police Department's Quality of Life Unit has issued 250 citations to taxi drivers who at the very least did not have a valid taxi permit.

Many also did not have driver's licenses or mandatory insurance, Gwinnett Police spokesman Cpl. Darren Moloney said.

Police estimate there are 550 taxis operating illegally in Gwinnett, and some either knowingly or unwittingly transport prostitutes and illegal drugs, Moloney said.

"This is a problem we are hoping to address with the county commissioners by enacting a stricter county ordinance," Moloney said. "We are in the process of doing that right now."

Moloney declined to say how the regulations might be tightened to help combat illegal cabs.

The crackdown on unlicensed cabs is following a similar path as the county's earlier fight against spas that served as fronts for prostitution.

After police began targeting those operations that were mostly in the Norcross area, deficiencies in the county spa ordinance became apparent.

To help shut down the massage parlors, the Gwinnett Board of Commissioners got input from the Police Department and adopted tougher rules that made it easier to get rid of the bad apples and prosecute offenders.

All companies and drivers who operate taxis based in unincorporated Gwinnett or pick up passengers there must get an occupation tax certificate and a work permit from the county.

To get the permits, they must prove they have commercial insurance that covers not only any damage they cause in a wreck, but also their passengers in case they are injured.

Cab companies also must provide a list of drivers and vehicles in their fleet, and they must keep the list up to date. A schedule of rates and hours of operation also must be filed with the county.

Taxi services also must keep a record of all calls they receive from customers, and drivers must maintain a log of their trips - records county authorities can demand to see at any time.

Similar requirements are placed on other more heavily regulated industries, like spas, pawn shops, tattoo parlors and locksmiths.

Police do not need probable cause to stop a taxi and demand to see the required permits or records. Those without them can be cited for a misdemeanor, and those lacking a driver's license have their vehicles impounded.

"The majority of the violations are for not having a valid Gwinnett County (taxi) permit," Moloney said. "There have been several repeat offenders, and they get cited for the same thing again and again."

Moloney said illegal cabs are not prevalent in any one part of the county, but many are found around extended-stay hotels, where they pick up customers.

The taxicab enforcement is being conducted by the Quality of Life Unit - a six-officer detachment charged with battling blight and smaller crimes that can destabilize a community, including home overcrowding, junked-up yards and

graffiti.

Illegal cabs fall in that category, Moloney said.

"Things tend to get out of control if you let them," he said. "With illegally run taxicab companies, what we see is they are a great transportation device for prostitutes, and they are a great transportation device for illegal drugs.

"Obviously not every illegal tax cab driver we pull over is transporting prostitutes or drugs," he added, "but it is an aspect of the business that, if you let it go unchecked, it could become a reality."

Since the crackdown began in May, one cab company has gotten an occupational tax certificate, bringing the number of legal cab companies in the unincorporated county to five, said Paul Eppinga, manager of the county Licensing and Revenue Section.

Nearly 80 cab drivers have county permits, and most, if not all, are independent contractors that work for the five companies, he said.