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DOWNTOWN : Latest 'Bandit Taxi' Stings Net 91 Arrests

August 08, 1993|IRIS YOKOI

The yellow taxicab stopped at 3rd and Alvarado streets when a young man flagged it down. "I want to go to 6th and Carondelet," the young man said in Spanish. "How much will you charge me?"

The driver sized up the potential customer and said, "About $8."

The young man nodded and hopped in, seemingly another naive fare ripe to be overcharged for a block-and-a-half ride. But the customer, it turns out, was Officer Rick Rodriguez, operating undercover during a sting of "bandit taxis" that operate illegally in the city.

If he were just an average fare, Rodriguez might not have noticed that the taxi was missing a large "City of Los Angeles" seal on the doors. And he might have fallen for the driver's attempt to take him on a longer ride.

But a few minutes into the ride, Rodriguez stuck his hand out a window, signaling two motorcycle officers who had been following the cab. The officers pulled the cab over and arrested the driver.

"I noticed he was passing 6th Street, and I asked, 'Aren't you going to turn here?' and he said, 'No, I'm going to take a short cut,' " Rodriguez said later. "He thought I didn't know where I was going."

Back at a rooftop command post off 6th, other police officers looked disdainfully at the cab, which was missing seat belts as well as the city seal, and had a dented passenger door.

"Some of these are just plain deathtraps . . . pieces of junk," said Lt. Dan Hills of the Central Traffic Division. "Would you want your mother to get in one of these?"

Authorities say several hundred cabs operate illegally in the city, without proper city permits, licenses or insurance. Their drivers operate unsafe vehicles, overcharge clients and deprive the city of an estimated $500,000 a year in fees, authorities said.

The city's 1,300 legitimate cabs, which each pay roughly $800 a year in fees, also complain that the bandits take away business. Hills estimated that in some areas of the city, 90% of the cabs on the streets are bandits.

The city Department of Transportation, with the help of the Police Department, has tried to curb the problem with periodic sting operations. Last month, traffic police spent four nights in the Westlake and Downtown areas and arrested 91 cabdrivers.

Twelve undercover police officers posed as customers on busy streets such as Broadway in Downtown and Alvarado Street and Vermont Avenue in Westlake. Twenty uniformed officers provided backup, arresting the cabbies and impounding the vehicles.

Most of those arrests were for operating a cab without city permits, a misdemeanor that carries a maximum sentence of six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. Many were also ticketed for violations such as missing commercial license plates.

Most of the arrested drivers claimed financial hardship as the reason they had operated illegally. "To get a permit, it's hard," said Gabriel Gomez, 24, as officers handcuffed him. The Westlake resident, who has driven a cab for a year, said he usually makes about $300 a week.

Officers acknowledged that the battle sometimes seems futile. But they said they will continue to attack the problem by trying to hurt business for the bandits with arrests and public education.

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