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Mike Nowatzki, Published May 04 2013

Who's picking you up? Fargo police not fully enforcing ordinance regulating cab drivers

FARGO – Police here aren’t fully enforcing a decades-old city ordinance that regulates taxicab drivers, allowing at least two convicted felons to obtain licenses before they were eligible and resulting in more than 50 cases since 2008 in which a cabbie’s license should have been revoked or suspended because of multiple traffic violations, a Forum investigation found.

Lt. Joel Vettel, the department’s public information officer, acknowledged police aren’t enforcing the law as written.

“The short answer would be, no, we’re not,” he said. “But the long answer is, we’re doing that for a reason. And the reason is that we just can’t afford to, with the resources (we have) … enforce a greatly outdated ordinance.”

Jeanie Brooks, the police department’s office manager, said she couldn’t find any suspensions or revocations of taxi drivers’ licenses in city records since at least 2008.

“They probably just quit or the taxicab company has let them go if they were aware of something,” she said.

The lack of enforcement by police has left the job in the hands of the taxicab companies.

“We really rely on the businesses to self-regulate their drivers,” Vettel said. “Because, everything said and done, really it’s their liability by putting people on the roadway that maybe they don’t feel are as safe as they should be. And that’s with any business.”

But taxi company officials indicated they rely on police when applications are submitted to the department for criminal background checks.

“When we send in applications, I guess we have to feel the Fargo police have done due diligence on this,” said Jim Peinovich, a third-generation owner of Doyle’s Yellow Checker Cab Co. “We’re fairly at their mercy.”

Investigation findings

To be eligible for a taxi driver’s license in Fargo, the applicant must be at least 21 years old, possess a valid driver’s license and not have been convicted of a felony or DUI unless two years have elapsed since the conviction date or discharge from a penal institution, whichever is later.

Once a cabbie has a city-issued license, the ordinance says it shall be revoked if the driver gets convicted of a felony or DUI, has his state driver’s license revoked or suspended or gets convicted of two or more violations of city or state traffic laws during any continuous six-month period.

The police chief has the option of suspending a license for up to 60 days instead of revoking it.

Through an open records request, The Forum obtained the names of all 234 taxi drivers listed in city records as of April 10.

Their taxi driver’s license issuance and renewal dates were then compared to their criminal and traffic records available online through the state’s public court records system.

Among the findings:

• Records showed at least 52 instances in which police should have revoked or suspended a license because the driver had two or more traffic violations within a six-month period. That doesn’t account for traffic violations committed in Minnesota, where numerous drivers had multiple offenses.

The Forum isn’t listing the names of those whose licenses should have been revoked or suspended because city data doesn’t indicate whether they are still taxi drivers and cab company officials said the industry has an extremely high turnover rate.

• In at least two instances, a taxi driver’s license should have been revoked or suspended because of a drunken driving conviction. But both of those convictions occurred in the driver’s current license year, and the city only checks drivers’ records once a year, at the time of their annual license renewal.

• In two other cases, licenses shouldn’t have been issued in the first place because not enough time had passed since the applicants were released from prison.

Cynthia Jean Gladue Roisum, 53, of Fargo, was convicted of felony endangering by fire or explosion on Oct. 15, 2010, in Walsh County and sentenced to prison. She was released on April 15, 2011, and the city issued her a taxi driver’s license on Feb. 12, 2012 – about 14 months before she was eligible under city ordinance.

A current phone number for Gladue Roisum could not be found. The number listed for her in city records was no longer hers.

William Hagebock, 30, of Fargo, was released from prison on March 18, 2011, after being convicted in McLean County of a felony charge of issuing a check without an account. The city gave him a taxi driver’s license on Sept. 10, 2012, about six months earlier than the ordinance allows.

Hagebock declined to comment when reached by phone April 24

Both drivers worked for Doyle’s but neither still does, Peinovich said, adding they probably were caught in a quarterly review of employees’ motor vehicle records conducted by the company’s insurer.

Peinovich said he didn’t know how the two drivers made it through the police background check before Doyle’s hired them.

“I don’t know how they ever got through,” he said.

‘Need to do more’

In another instance, the city issued a taxi driver’s license to a man after he had recently pleaded guilty to luring minors by computer – a Class B felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison – and was awaiting sentencing.

Travis Bock, 26, of Moorhead, was charged with luring on April 9, 2012, in Richland County District Court in Wahpeton. He pleaded guilty to the charge on July 3 and was sentenced on Nov. 8 to a year in jail with four years suspended and 68 days of credit for time served. He also must register as a sex offender.

Between his plea hearing and sentencing, the city issued Bock a taxi driver’s license on Aug. 7.

In a phone interview on April 25, Bock said he didn’t list the felony on his application because he technically hadn’t been convicted, which happens at sentencing.

Bock said he informed Lucky 7 Taxi Service of the situation when he was hired, but co-owner Laurie Dodd said the company wasn’t aware of the felony charge until Bock stopped showing up for work after his sentencing. She said she “definitely” thinks his guilty plea should have been flagged in a police review of his application.

Dodd said police have been doing “a lot better” job of checking records in the past six months than in the past three years.

“I do think that they’re doing more than they used to,” she said. “I just think we still need to do more.”

‘On the back burner’

Police believe the taxicab ordinance needs updating and that cabbie licensing should be overseen by a different branch of city government such as the auditor’s office, which already licenses taxicab services at a cost of $50 per year for the first car and $15 for each additional car.

Vettel said the enforcement of taxi driver’s licenses “has been pushed back on the back burner out of necessity” as the department has tasked its records staff with additional duties.

“And it really comes down to putting resources where we think we are being the most effective, and that is dealing with criminal aspects of the city, dealing with other issues that we feel are more pertinent and more appropriate for the police department,” he said.

Dodd said she wasn’t surprised by the number of licenses that weren’t revoked or suspended based on traffic citations, and she doesn’t believe Fargo police are solely to blame.

“I think it’s partially us to blame, too, because we don’t bring it forward and we have to,” she said.

Court records suggest a clean driving record isn’t a prerequisite for becoming a licensed taxi driver.

Three of the drivers listed in Fargo’s records had racked up a total of 20 or more driving- or vehicle-related citations in North Dakota and Minnesota since the start of 2008, and 11 drivers had between 10 and 19 citations.

In many cases, the majority of those citations were issued before the drivers received their taxi driver’s license. But one taxi driver who was first licensed in 2005 and has renewed his license every year except 2007 had 22 citations on his record since 2008, including 14 speeding tickets and citations for careless driving and failing to stop at a red light and stop signs.

Another driver who had 21 citations on his record – among them a DWI in Clay County in 2007, driving under suspension or revocation and open container violations in West Fargo in 2010, and six tickets in 2012 alone – was issued a taxi driver’s license on Jan. 16 of this year.

Taking a second look

Dodd and Peinovich said they have been pressing Fargo officials for several years to revise the taxicab ordinance, mainly because they believe some smaller taxi services – and businesses that drive people home in their own vehicles – aren’t adhering to the regulations that the larger cab companies follow.

“There’s definitely some things that have to be cleared up,” Dodd said.

Despite the need for revisions, Dodd said she would support keeping the part of the law that calls for suspension or revocation for two traffic citations within six months, calling it a safety issue.

“If that person tends to have a heavy foot, do you really want them driving your passengers around?” she said.

At the same time, “that makes our job a lot harder because the pay isn’t all that great, and it’s just harder to keep good employees,” she said.

A high turnover rate is the norm in the cab industry, according to Dodd and Peinovich, who said he hired and fired 50 people in the first quarter of this year alone.

“In my industry, my competition is everybody else up the ladder,” he said. “So, that’s probably one of our hardest areas is finding good, solid employees. But we’ve been lucky. Fargo’s got great people.”

Todd Anderson, an agent with Dawson Insurance who counts Peinovich among his clients, said insurance companies deciding whether to insure a business’s drivers generally follow a guideline of no more than three minor traffic violations or three accidents, or a combination of the two, within a three-year period.

Major violations such as any felony, DUI, hit-and-run, fleeing police and possibly excessive speeding would be considered unacceptable, he said.

Insurers might be more restrictive and less willing to make exceptions for delivery business such as taxi services, Anderson said.

Because of the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act, insurers can’t share a prospective driver’s record with the client – including taxicab companies – but can share whether the driver meets the guidelines or not, he said.

Vettel said police are “always concerned about safety” and haven’t heard complaints from the public about cabbies, who are still regulated by police, he pointed out.

“Really our role is to continue to enforce the overall driving of all people on the roadways,” he said. “We hold these taxicab drivers to a standard every day, of the laws within the city of Fargo.”

Still, Vettel said police planned to take a second look at some drivers after The Forum brought their driving records to light.

“Certainly. I think that’s appropriate,” he said. “And so we’ll be looking at them within the next couple weeks to make sure that they are all again following the rules of the road, but more importantly are their driving behaviors egregious enough where we would take action to remove their taxicab driver’s license. And again, that might have already occurred by the business.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528