By Mark E. Vogler
---- — LAWRENCE — City officials insist a federal court order handed down this week won’t change the way they have been dealing with out-of-town cab drivers.
“It appears the judge is saying the ordinance needs to be followed, which is exactly what we’re doing and have done all along,” Lawrence Police Chief John Romero said yesterday.
U.S. District Court Judge Nathaniel M. Gorton issued a two-page ruling on Monday which orders the police to cease stopping out-of-town cab drivers from dropping off or picking up passengers in the city, as long as the drivers are following the city’s taxi cab ordinance. As part of a preliminary injunction granted to Andover Central Transportation Corp., the judge also ordered police not to keep out-of-town cabbies from passing through the city.
The judge noted “evidence” that police “are not acting in compliance with the City’s taxi cab ordinances.” He was referring to allegations that police have ticketed and towed cabs that made legitimate passenger pickups and drop-offs in the city. Andover attorney Peter J. Caruso, who represents the cab company and its five drivers, hailed the judge’s ruling as “a win for the out-of-town taxicabs” in their ongoing federal court lawsuit against the city. Caruso also represents The Eagle-Tribune.
But attorney William DiAdamo, who represents the city in the case, yesterday said he disagreed with Caruso that the judge’s order was a victory for anyone involved in the case.
“We believe everything the Police Department has done to date conforms completely with the judge’s order,” DiAdamo said in an interview last night.
“We’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing. If cabs from Andover comply with the order, everything is great. If an out-of-town cab company drives around Lawrence, picking people up on the street without following the regulations, then I expect there will be penalties. and I expect the police will be diligent in making sure that they follow the letter of the law,” he said.
DiAdamo said he believed the judge’s order was actually “helpful” because it clearly spells out the requirements under which out-of-town cab drivers can operate in the city:
1) Out-of-town cab drivers can drop off passengers in the city as long as they return to the city where they originated immediately after the drop-off.
2) They can pick up passengers in the city if they were requested by passengers. But the driver must be able to produce to inquiring police officers information supporting the request.
“Outside cab companies now know they need to disclose supporting information, so if a police officer pulls over one of these cabs, they can prove where they’re responding and everybody goes on their merry way,” DiAdamo said.
“It’s not appropriate for these cabs to keep driving around Lawrence picking people up on the street and dropping them off. Once they drop the passenger off, they have to leave the city and go back from where they are from. The just can’t drive around looking for pickups,” he said.
Chief Romero defended his department’s aggressive enforcement of the ordinance this year to ticket and tow out-of-town cab drivers who were violating the ordinance.
“The issue has been some of these drivers hanging around in the city accepting ‘hails’ on the street,” Romero said.
“When somebody flags you down that you didn’t call, that’s a violation of the ordinance. And in a case like that, we’re going to follow the city ordinance, as we have been,” Romero said.
If the police have been overzealous in their enforcement and wrongly ticketed and towed somebody, Romero said people need to file complaints with the Police Department.
DiAdamo said he’s heard of the complaints that several out-of-town cabbies were improperly towed and ticketed, but said he hasn’t seen the evidence yet.
“I’ve read the allegations, but I haven’t read anything to support that this actually happened. I haven’t seen that a cab drivers that was stopped was responding to a valid call.
“To my knowledge, everything they have done so far is in compliance with the order. At some point, it will be for the court to decide. But that could take a while. If we get into a situation of litigating every time somebody was pulled over, that’s a lot of detail that needs to be worked out,” he said.
The federal lawsuit over the city’s taxi ordinance could take months or even a year or more to resolve, according to DiAdamo.
“We’re barely in the first inning here, “ DiAdamo said. “There some important constitutional issues that’s are going to be looked at. A lot of stuff that is going to be dealt with.”
Meanwhile, City Council President Frank Moran said the council at some point will consider changes in the taxi ordinance.
“Our next step will be to sit down with the city attorney and amend our ordinance accordingly,” Moran said.
“It’s something that will be coming up in the next month. We have to make sure we draft the proper language so we are not violating any state or federal law. But it’s still an ongoing case,” he said.
Moran said he was both “surprised” and “disappointed” with the judge’s court order.
“I think the police were doing their job and doing what the ordinance says. It has nothing to do with them. I think the judge saw it a little different than we did. You got to respect the judge’s decision at the end,” Moran said.
“Our intention is not to stop this company from driving through the city of Lawrence. Absolutely not. The only thing that we are trying to do is keep them from camping out in Lawrence,” he said.