By Keith Eddings
---- — LAWRENCE — Cab driver Yovanny DeLeon was cutting through the city on April 22 with a fare he said he was taking from Union Street in Methuen to High Street in North Andover.
A swirl of police lights ended the trip on the Duck Bridge in Lawrence.
Officer William Green pulled over DeLeon’s cab and ordered him and his passenger out. He called a towing company to haul the vehicle away, handed DeLeon a $500 citation and left the two on the street.
“She was really mad because she called the cab company she likes,” DeLeon, a 33-year-old Lawrence resident and a father of two, said yesterday about his passenger. “The police said, ‘I don’t care. You’re supposed to call Lawrence cab services or don’t call anybody. Walk.’”
It was an opening shot in a widening skirmish between the city and an Andover cab company over a month-old law that bans out-of-town cab companies from picking up fares in Lawrence, which yesterday reached the state Superior Court.
In his suit, Ramon Tapia, owner of Andover Central Transportation Corp., likened the law to a “barbed wire surrounding the city” and alleged it is intended only to protect “the three large taxi cartels” that hold 90 percent of Lawrence’s hack licenses.
Tapia asked the court to enjoin Lawrence from enforcing the law until it can hear his claim that it violates both the state and federal constitutions.
He asked for a second injunction blocking the Lawrence City Council from putting more teeth in the new law when it meets on Tuesday, when councilors are scheduled to consider a provision that would allow cops to tow cabs driven by the out-of-town hacks who operate in the city. The law now authorizes police to arrest the drivers and seize evidence but does not specifically authorize them to tow cars, which the council intends to do Tuesday.
Tapia said police already have had about 20 of his cabs towed since the law took effect early in April. He said he has spent up to $145 to retrieve each of the 20 cabs, for a total of almost $3,000, and said he said he also is responsible for the $500 citations each of the drivers has been issued, which he is contesting.
Worse, he said his drivers are quitting rather than face down Lawrence police and risking points on their licenses, which he said has deepened the losses he already is suffering from the towing fees and citations.
“Most of my drivers, they quit,” Tapia said. “Before I had 32. Now I have 17. It’s a nightmare. The police are harassing them. It’s hard to work like that. This morning, one of my drivers was passing through Lawrence. He was empty. One of the cops told him he has to leave Lawrence, that we cannot be in Lawrence.”
One driver has been arrested so far, although Lawrence police Capt. Roy Vasque, who commands the Police Department division that oversees the city’s taxi fleet, said the arrest stemmed from the driver’s alleged disorderly conduct after he was pulled over, not from the new taxi ordinance. He said Lawrence police have issued only about half the 20 citations that Tapia said his drivers have received.
Vasque also said he was not familiar with Tapia’s allegations that police are pulling over cabs with no passengers or with DeLeon’s allegation that he had picked up his fare in Methuen and was only driving through the city when he was stopped. He affirmed that the new law allows Lawrence police to stop out-of-town drivers only if they are seen picking up passengers in the city and invited DeLeon to make his case to Chief John Romero.
Vasque also alleged that out-of-town cab companies have been resourceful in trolling for Lawrence’s lucrative taxi business — which is fueled by the fact that many residents can’t afford cars of their own — including by opening underground dispatching centers in the city.
The new law banning the out-of-town companies from working in Lawrence 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.
“If we need to accommodate these businesses to keep them in the city, we should take those steps,” city Councilor Eileen Bernal said yesterday. “The (out-of-town) cabs are actively seeking out Lawrence fares. It’s not like they’re waiting for their phones to ring in Andover. They’re coming into Lawrence seeking Lawrence fares.”
The cost of operating a cab in Lawrence is driven even higher by the fact that the city capped the number of taxi medallions at 150 several years ago, driving the market value of a medallion to as much as $30,000, according to Tapia’s lawyer, Peter Caruso. The city charges just $250 for a medallion, but allows them to be traded in an open market and so none has become available at that price in a decade, Caruso said.
“A cartel of the 150 taxicab permit holders wants to protect the profits at the expense of both these other taxis and the riding public,” Caruso said in the complaint he filed yesterday, which said many of the cabbies who drive for the Andover company live in Lawrence.
“These 150 permit holders, acting as a cartel, cannot use governmental power to outlaw competition. (The Andover cabbies) were locked out of the 150 cap (on medallions) but have hundreds of passengers in Lawrence who want to use their services. Suddenly, these drivers have been shut out of their own city,” said Caruso, who also represents The Eagle-Tribune.
The request for the injunction is scheduled to be heard Tuesday at 2 p.m., five hours before the City Council meeting.