Investigators: Limos steer clear of laws and licensing


by CHRIS INGALLS / KING 5 Investigators

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Posted on February 22, 2010 at 6:58 PM

Seattle wants more authority to crack down on a growing problem on city streets. It's an issue that harms the city's image, irritates citizens and may even threaten public safety.

The KING 5 investigators have been examining why limo and town car drivers have been creating such an uproar.

At Seattle’s ferry dock a wall of men stands in front of passengers streaming out the main door.

"They say ‘Do you need a ride, do you need a ride?' We'll take you to the airport!'" said passenger Ken Brown. "They push each other out of the way to get to you and if you're not going that way, you got to push your way through them."

"They're kind of persistent. They're persistent and pushy," said passenger Alicia Smith.

The men claim to be taxi drivers. But actual cabbies look on helplessly while their fares are plucked away.

Cabbie Issak Newton says he can’t step too far from his cab, parked at a taxi stand across the street.

"I’d love to, but I can’t do it," said Newton. "The city forces us to stay in our cab. If we go there we get a ticket."

Soliciting passengers at Coleman Dock is a clear violation of law and signs warn against it. 

These men are part of what city officials say is a problem in Seattle that's gone from bad to worse in the down economy - rogue limo and town car drivers snatching passengers from the ports, downtown streets and hotels.

"They're only supposed to do pre-arranged trips," said Craig Leisy of Seattle’s Consumer Affairs Office. His office inspects and regulates taxi cabs and writes tickets for cabbies who, for example, stray more than 12 feet from their cab. Cabs can solicit fares on the street if they follow certain rules.

Limos, by contrast, are state licensed, so Leisy's inspectors can't cite them in spite of numerous complaints over tussles with passengers and each other. Unlike taxis, limos are prohibited from picking up random passengers and street soliciting.

"A passenger would have to call the business office of the limo carrier and arrange for a trip," said Leisy.

Our review of records shows state regulators have only disciplined a dozen limo drivers in the last two years.

We found a dozen potential violators in one morning, limo drivers offering passengers rides for a few dollars less than standard taxi fares.

Cabbies get their share of complaints too. However, city officials check their driving history, their insurance and their criminal background, before the city gives them a license.

That may be why the cab driver who was convicted of sexually assaulting a sick passenger he was taking to the hospital turned to limo driving.

Justin Jasbinder Johal of Kent became a registered sex offender and lost his cab license. But a city inspector spotted him later driving a limo at the ferry terminal. The state then revoked his limo license.

That case is extreme, but what is common is complaints against the 700 licensed limos in King County going unanswered, and growing numbers of rogue drivers rarely being challenged.

Even though these violations are so obvious, the State Department of Licensing says it doesn't have money to go after rogue drivers. It would be happy to hand that duty over to Seattle.

A law that would give Seattle that responsibility has just passed the House and is on its way to the Senate.