By Mark E. Vogler
---- — LAWRENCE — City police can no longer prevent out-of-town cab drivers from dropping off or picking up passengers in the city, under a federal court order issued this week.
“The Court finds that there is evidence that law enforcement officers of defendant City of Lawrence, Massachusetts ... are not acting in compliance with the City’s taxi cab ordinances,” U.S. District Court Judge Nathaniel M. Gorton wrote in a two-page ruling that also prohibits police from keeping out-of-town cabbies from driving through the city.
In granting a preliminary injunction sought last month by Andover Central Transportation Corp. to prevent police from enforcing the ordinance, the judge noted that the company’s claims had merit and that it would be “at risk of suffering irreparable harm if injunctive relief is denied.”
“When I went before the City Council, all I was trying to do was to prevent them from the embarrassment of a federal court order — and they didn’t listen to me,” Andover attorney Peter J. Caruso said in an interview yesterday. Caruso represents the cab company and five of its drivers, who have alleged that the city wants to drive away the out-of-town cabbies in an effort to protect the business interests of three companies that hold 123 of the city’s 150 medallions.
“You have nine city councilors who just didn’t use common sense. I think everybody in the city and in the world questions why a taxi cab couldn’t have entered the City of Lawrence unless it is licensed by City Hall. So, the judge’s decision was really no surprise,” Caruso said.
“The bottom line is the City of Lawrence is enjoined and restrained from enforcing its own ordinance by a federal judge. That’s a powerful order. I have not seen this before,” he said.
Attorney William DiAdamo, who represents the city in the federal court case, last night declined to comment on the ruling. He said he hadn’t had a chance to brief city officials on the judge’s decision yet and will withhold comment until he does.
Lawrence Police Chief John Romero said he was unaware of the judge’s ruling. He declined comment.
Caruso blamed the City Council for creating the recent controversy surrounding the towing of out-of-town cabs for picking up Lawrence residents who requested them.
“They took a facially enforceable ordinance and made it unconstitutional by removing one paragraph on Dec. 4, 2012,” Caruso said
“By removing that paragraph, they in effect prohibited any and all taxicabs outside Lawrence from either entering Lawrence or driving through Lawrence. Not only is it unconstitutional, but it defies common sense,” Caruso said.
The revised ordinance grew from protests by the seven taxi and livery companies that the city licenses. The company owners complained that the cost of doing business is greater for them, in part because the cost of insuring a vehicle in Lawrence is higher than in surrounding municipalities, and so they should be protected from out-of-town companies who can undercut their fares.
City councilors voted to delete the following language from the ordinance at their Dec. 4, 2012 meeting:
“However, nothing herein shall be construed as prohibiting a driver of a taxicab or livery licensed outside the City of Lawrence from driving through the City of Lawrence, or from accepting within the City of Lawrence, a passenger, passengers, packages or other merchandise if summonsed by or at the request of said passenger or client by telephone, or by radio dispatch from the owner or operator’s principal place of business outside the City of Lawrence provided that the name, pick-up address, and destination of said passenger or client are immediately supplied by the driver to any inquiring Police Officer.”
The City Council is expected to consider additional changes to the ordinance and had a public hearing scheduled for Friday night.
“This is definitely a win for the out-of-town taxicabs and should also be a wake-up call for the City Council,” Caruso said. “There are 28 tickets that have been issued at $500 plus 28 cabs been towed at $145 per tow since the council made its changes in the ordinance. I think the city owes that money back for all the cab owners.”
Caruso noted the cab drivers he represents also have a pending federal lawsuit which questions the city’s cap of 150 taxi cab medallions that have been in place since 2006.
“We have a situation where three companies control almost 80 percent of the medallions.
The damages we will be seeking will part of that federal action,” he said.
Caruso noted that even as recently as last week, the Lawrence Police stopped an Andover taxicab, issued a $500 fine and towed the cab “even though the passenger summoned the cab herself from Lawrence.”
“Obviously, the Police Department and the City Legal Department are not talking,” he said.