Taxi owners feeling heat from police

LAWRENCEVILLE - Steve Jones was surprised when a police officer told him to move his cab from the Gwinnett Transit hub near Gwinnett Place Mall or get a ticket.

Taxis had parked at the lot where people switch between local buses since the transit system began in 2001.

On this day, though, a uniformed officer in an unmarked Ford Taurus told Jones, who drives for Victory Cab, that his parking there violated a county ordinance that governs taxis, limos and other for-hire vehicles.

"It's a county ordinance that they haven't enforced for years," said Jones, who believes the county is selectively enforcing the ordinance that prohibits cabs from cruising for fares or parking in front of restaurants or bars while waiting for potential riders.

The only place cabs can park are at cab stands, but none exist in Gwinnett County.

"They've started enforcing the no-cab-stand rule only at the transit center. That's it," said Jones, who lives in Norcross.

"On Friday and Saturday nights all the cabs sit at Wild Bill's and they don't enforce it. It's the same at restaurants on Jimmy Carter Boulevard. Only at the transit center do they enforce it, and we're wondering what their motivation is for that."

Police say they aren't singling out any one spot. Instead it's part of a wider focus on taxis that have proliferated in Gwinnett County, particularly in the more urbanized parts.

Some cab companies have complained for years that fly-by-night taxis are operating without county permits and are skirting other regulations.

That is something authorities have noticed, said Cpl. Darren Moloney, spokesman for the Gwinnett County Police Department.

"It's just a matter of enforcing laws that are already on the books, and we realize there is a problem that needs to be addressed," Moloney said.

Police said it's too early to call their efforts a crackdown, but they, in conjunction with the county Law Department, are looking at what can be done about rule-breaking taxis and whether county regulations should be tightened.

Moloney said illegal cabs came to the Police Department's attention through the efforts of its Quality of Life Unit, which is working to clean up blighted neighborhoods and commercial centers by enforcing property maintenance codes.

"They've had a lot of run-ins with taxi cab drivers not properly licensed," Moloney said. "Some of them don't even have valid driver's licenses."

The unit writes 50 to 60 cab violations per month, Moloney said.

"One of our sergeants was surprised at the amount that had no driver's licenses and no insurance," Moloney said. "Some had the wrong tag on the car. It would come back registered as a Ford Escort and (the officer) would be sitting behind a Honda."

Uninsured vehicles are impounded, while drivers without driver's licenses go to jail. As for taxi ordinance violations, they are misdemeanors and the cabbie is cited and sent on their way, Moloney said.

A recent stop, though, resulted in a felony because of forged government documents.

On Friday, police arrested Eulalio Mendoza-Soriano, 55, of Norcross, and charged him with having a fake county cab license after he was stopped on Mitchell Road, according to police reports.

All companies and drivers who operate taxis that are based in unincorporated Gwinnett or pick up passengers there must get an occupation tax certificate and a work permit from the county, said county Licensing and Revenue Manager Paul Eppinga.

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, Eppinga said.

Cab companies also must provide a list of their drivers and the 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.

Only four taxi companies have permits to do business in unincorporated Gwinnett, Eppinga said.

One longtime taxi company owner, who requested anonymity because he is not in compliance with some aspects of the ordinance, said he hopes police weed out those operating without county permits and adequate insurance.

He said the illegal cabs are able to charge less, which hurts those who adhere to the rules.

"It's about time to be honest with you," the businessman said. "It's overdue because if everybody is on the same playing field, then you don't have them cutting the prices in half and killing the people that are trying to do it right."

More officers than those in the Quality of Life Unit will be able to spot taxi violations in coming months. The entire police force is getting the same training that specialty force got, which will enable every officer to better deal with home overcrowding, junk car-filled yards and illicit taxi operations.

"Right now it is just the Quality of Life Unit that is well versed on the laws on the books regarding those things," Moloney said, "but the (police) chief and the (county) commissioners are very adamant about getting that information out to all Gwinnett officers."

Instead of roughly 12 officers trained to deal with run-down properties and little-known codes, 550-plus cops will be able to handle such infractions when they encounter them in the course of their duties.

Jones, with Victory Cab, said there are a lot of illegal cabs in Gwinnett County that do not have commercial insurance, but that doesn't mean legitimate taxis should be kept from parking at the transit hub while others still park outside bars.

Besides hurting cab company's business, the parking ban also affects bus riders who don't have cell phones to call a taxi with, Jones said.

Sometimes a bus route doesn't run close to the person's final destination and they hail a cab. Other times a person at the transit center needs a ride because they got there after the buses stopped running for the night, Jones said.

Either way, the taxis help augment the transit service, he said.

"It's really bad for the simple fact that many of the people are working class and they don't have cell phones. They can't call us when it's raining and they don't want to walk or if they're stuck there when the buses stop running."

Jones said the enforcement of the no-parking policy has trimmed about a third of his business.

Gwinnett Transit Director Tim Collins said he was unaware cabs were being prohibited from parking near the transit center. He said the system had a problem in the past with taxis parking in the same lot where buses turn around.