By Keith Eddings
---- — LAWRENCE — City councilors last night added new teeth to a law banning out-of-town cabbies from picking up fares in the city. Members authorized police to tow cabs that violate the law, after a combative exchange with a lawyer representing an Andover cab company that has seen 21 of its drivers charged since the law was passed.
Meanwhile, a few hours before the council voted 7-0 to allow the tows, the cab company’s request for an injunction blocking the city from enforcing the law reached a federal court, which granted the city’s request to take over the case from the state court where it was filed last week.
The city did not explain why it wanted the case moved from the state Superior Court across a courtyard from City Hall to a federal District Court in Boston. The federal court was able to take the case, however, because it alleges that banning out-of-town cabbies from Lawrence violates the equal protection guarantees in the U.S. Constitution by creating an inferior class of cabbies out of those who do not hold one of the 150 medallions that the city has issued.
The Lawrence District Court had scheduled a hearing on the request for the injunction for yesterday afternoon, which it canceled when the case was moved. Federal District Court Judge Nathaniel Gorton agreed to hold his own hearing on the injunction at 2 p.m. tomorrow.
Yesterday’s skirmishing over the taxi ban climaxed at the City Council meeting, when lawyer Peter Caruso, who is representing the Andover Central Transportation Corp. and five of its drivers, alleged that the city was attempting to drive away the out of town cabbies in an effort to protect what he suggested was a cartel of three companies that hold 123 of the city’s 150 medallions.
Caruso also alleged that police are stopping Andover cabs that are just passing through Lawrence to get to or from one location outside the city to another. Furthermore, Caruso alleged, the city’s cap on medallions at 150 has driven their cost to $30,000, which he said forces Lawrence residents who can’t afford a medallion to drive for out-of-town companies.
Caruso also noted that Lawrence police have been towing the Andover cabs for months under a clause in the law that allows the cabs to “seize evidence,” even though the cabs are immediately released to drivers who pay a towing fee of up to $145. The drivers also are given a $500 citation and their passengers are handed over to Lawrence cab companies.
Caruso also alleged that police are telling Andover drivers to “get out of the city. Don’t come back.”
“ ‘You’re not even allowed to cross through Lawrence,’ “ Caruso said an Andover driver was told by a Lawrence police officer.
“This is speculation,” City Council President Frank Moran injected, in an unusual challenge by a councilor to a speaker at a public hearing. “Do you have proof?”
“I have an affidavit filed in U.S. District court in Boston, signed under pains of perjury,” Caruso responded. “I also have two or three witnesses.”
“With all due respect, do you know where you are?” Moran injected again a minute or two later. “You’re at the Lawrence City Council. We look out for businesses in the city. You’re advocating for a business from out of town.”
“I’m three blocks away from where I grew up,” Caruso responded. “I know where I am. I’m representing Lawrence residents.”
Caruso said all but one of the few dozen drivers from the Andover cab company is from Lawrence.
Lawrence Police Lt. Shawn Conway was the only other speaker at the hearing.
“Everything we’ve done is in accordance with the city attorney and with the council’s ordinance,” Conway told the councilors.
He said adding more medallions beyond 150 would burden the officer who administers the medallions and the 380 drivers with hack licenses.
A handful of Andover drivers attended the hearing, but none spoke.
Afterward, Johnny Difeo, one of the five Andover drivers who joined the suit along with company owner Ramon Tapia, said Lawrence police had his cab towed and gave him a $150 ticket on April 22 after he entered the city carrying a passenger he said he had picked up in Methuen.
He said he was stopped again yesterday when he was driving himself to a laundromat in a cab that was empty except for him.
“If somebody calls me to pick them up in Methuen, why can’t I pick them up?” Difeo asked.
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.