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Illegal Taxis Keep On Rolling

Times Staff Writer

As the rusty, mud-colored Toyota Camry puttered into the driveway of the South Los Angeles motel, an acrid gasoline odor wafted through the air.

Scanning the parking lot, the driver stopped for the woman he thought had called for a taxi and beckoned her inside.

Within moments, police motorcycles ablaze with flashing lights zoomed up. Sheriff’s deputies and the woman -- an undercover city investigator -- arrested the driver and dispatched a tow truck to impound the sedan, a suspected illegal taxi.

The Camry was among at least 1,500 illegal taxicabs roaming the streets of Los Angeles every day, from the northeast San Fernando Valley to San Pedro, according to city estimates. Also known as bandit taxis, gypsy cabs or piratas -- Spanish for “pirates” -- they take business away from licensed cabbies, depress bus ridership and pose safety risks for passengers, officials say.

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“It’s got a huge gas leak; whee-ew!” Deputy Bill Cody said as he stepped away from the Camry, which had carpeting damp with fuel and a center console flowering with loose electrical cords connected to a hot-wired CB radio. “All this ... can cause a spark. It’s a death trap.”

Last year, authorities arrested or issued citations to more than 1,400 suspected illegal cabbies and impounded more than 800 bandit vehicles. The number was more than twice that of the year before, in part because of their proliferation during the transit strike and partly because the city’s Department of Transportation and Police Department received enforcement help from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, which patrols the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s bus and train lines.

Yet despite such repeated crackdowns, the illicit business continues to thrive.

At bus stops, street corners and taxi loading zones and outside bars, hotels and nightclubs, bandit cabbies are scooping up passengers -- sometimes a dozen or more at a time. In some Yellow Pages, the listings for suspected bandits outnumber city-approved companies by more than 10 to 1.

“It’s an easy crime to get away with. All you need is a vehicle, and you’re in business,” said Tom Drischler, the city’s taxicab administrator. “We’ve just not had the resources available to clamp down on them effectively.”

But bandit cabbies say they are popular because their transportation service is valuable to their customers, many of whom are poor.

“I don’t rob. I don’t kill. I only work,” said Adrian Hernandez, 34, an illegal immigrant who left his restaurant job two years ago to become a bandit driver. Being a “chauffeur” to others, he added, should not be illegal. “I need to eat, to feed my children.”

Some passengers said they preferred bandits.

“They provide a better service than taxicabs,” said Diane Walters, a 37-year-old nurse. The Westlake woman sometimes hails a bandit taxi when she gets tired of waiting for a bus, and she likes the fact that the drivers don’t expect tips. “They’re cheaper, and there’s more of them,” she said.

Bandit taxis range from one-person outfits to dispatch centers with hundreds of drivers. They sometimes approach people hailing cabs at the curb -- at times cutting in front of licensed taxis. They also advertise through business cards distributed at hotels and bars and on stickers on phone booths.

Some vehicles are vans that seat up to 15 passengers and specialize in certain routes -- almost like buses. They ferry customers between communities such as Westlake and downtown’s garment district. Occasionally, they are recycled police cars painted banana yellow -- with plastic light covers on top, phony city seals on doors and nonworking meters.

An increasing number, officers say, are just like the Camry -- virtually indistinguishable from the other cars on the road.

Authorities believe they’re hacking away at the tip of an iceberg.

The same suspects pop up again and again. Cornered drivers sometimes greet a deputy warmly by his first name. As officers stand next to a bandit cab they just pulled over, others zip past them.

“It’s this ongoing cat-and-mouse game ... this never-ending cycle,” said Deputy James McKain of the sheriff’s transit service bureau. “We can take one off the street, and another one will replace it the next day.”

Suspects used to have an easier time. Before a new law took effect in January that lengthened the impoundment period, owners of a towed-away bandit taxi paid a $168.50 fee to release it within hours. Officers would bust an illegal taxi in the morning, only to spot the same minivan -- laden with riders -- zip by later in the afternoon.

Now, bandit cabs can be impounded for up to 30 days, after which owners must pay about $1,000 to get them back. Some owners wait until the vehicle is classified as “abandoned” and put up for public auction, as the law requires. Associates of bandit operators often buy a vehicle back for as little as $200, tow operators say.

The maximum penalty for the misdemeanor offense is six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. Most of those pulled over walk away with probation and lesser fines or with traffic citations.

Bandit cabbies cost licensed taxi companies an estimated $30 million a year in lost revenue, according to the city’s Department of Transportation, which oversees 2,303 legal taxis.

Some investigators believe bandits outnumber licensed cabs, but no one has a solid count.

The city receives about 200 complaints a year from bandit cab customers who have alleged, among other things, that drivers robbed them, assaulted them, demanded sexual favors or forced them to pay more than their agreed-on fare. Drivers have been booked for felonies after officers found drugs, guns or outstanding arrest warrants.

A bandit ride isn’t always cheaper than a licensed cab ride. Operators charge as little as a dollar but also can gouge customers.

The driver of one battered blue van that had advertised itself as a “taxi” charged a rider $5 for a one-mile ride across downtown Los Angeles. A similar ride in a licensed cab would have been $3.80, excluding tip, city investigators said.

Bandit cabs tend to be uninsured. Many operators don’t have valid driver’s licenses. Some would never get hired as legal taxi drivers because of their poor driving records or criminal histories.

In 1999, a bandit driver with two convictions for drunken driving and a suspended license raced into a Compton rail crossing and collided with a Metro Blue Line train, killing himself and all five passengers in his yellow Chevy sedan.

During the recent sting operation that netted the battered Camry, city investigators called a suspected bandit company to request a ride. Uniformed deputies hid around the corner.

After his arrest, Hermitano Juarez said he was an unemployed construction worker who had been driving the Camry part time for two months, making about $80 on a good day. The car was owned by a friend who he thought had a license to use it as a cab, he said.

Juarez is scheduled to be arraigned Dec. 22 on misdemeanor charges of illegal vehicle for hire, lack of a valid driver’s license and not having a taxi permit. He also received a citation for not having car insurance.

The 35-year-old man grinned sheepishly when officers asked why he didn’t have a license.

“I need to take my driving test,” he said, explaining that he failed the Department of Motor Vehicles written exam four times before passing on his fifth try.

“There’s too many questions,” he sighed.


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