More than a year ago, in a small hearing room downtown, city officials could have ended the career of a Chicago cabdriver who topped the list of citizen complaints.
Zulfiqar Shah was a reckless driver prone to road rage, according to numerous citizen complaints. Among those complaints, he reportedly argued with a pregnant passenger and gunned the accelerator when she tried to leave the cab. Another time, he is alleged to have nearly caused a crash, then chased down the other driver and threatened to shoot him.
But in June 2010 a hearing officer with the authority to revoke Shah's chauffeur license instead fined him $390 and suspended him for three days.
In the city's quasi-court for cabbies, what happened to Shah was rare only in that he was ordered off the road at all. A Tribune investigation found that cabbies who are the subject of complaints are almost always hit with fines, not license suspensions or revocations — even for repeated, dangerous conduct.
From some 7,000 complaints made last year, 18 cabdrivers lost their licenses temporarily. Seven had them permanently revoked.
In the wake of two taxi-related pedestrian deaths, recent Tribune stories on dangerous cabbies have revealed that Cook County courts throw out most tickets of repeat offenders, and that even when drivers are convicted of serious traffic offenses, regulators rarely get them off the road.
Citizens' complaints, however, are handled by a separate system in which city agencies wield the power to take the worst cabdrivers off the road without assistance from traditional courts. Citizens can file complaints for all types of misdeeds, from unsafe driving to price gouging.
In focusing on this complaint process, the Tribune found that revocations of chauffeur licenses for unsafe driving are declining — from 1 in 61 cases prosecuted in 2008 to 1 in 279 in 2010.
City officials credit years of aggressive enforcement that, they say, left them with fewer bad cabbies to discipline. Records confirm the number of complaints has fallen since 2008, but still there were nearly 2,000 complaints of reckless cabbies last year.
"We try to make them the best they can be. When that fails, then they're out," said Rosemary Krimbel, commissioner of the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, which oversees taxi regulation. "Sometimes those are hard calls, and we have to make them."
City officials say their enforcement strategies prioritize safety — not collecting cash.
Yet several cabdrivers told the Tribune the disciplinary process has long seemed fixated on pressuring cabbies to pay fines. In an industry with long hours and meager profits, veteran driver Bill Burns said, the process squeezes generally safe cabbies while watering down discipline for those who "have no business driving a cab."
"It is not about the facts," Burns said of the disciplinary process. "It is about the money."
The city has long touted citizens as the watchdogs of questionable cabbies. To boost awareness of the process, the city plans to make all taxis display bumper stickers asking riders, motorists, pedestrians and others to call 311 to report problems with cabbies.
But the Tribune found that most citizen complaints don't go far, including the most serious that allege reckless driving.
Of nearly 2,000 complaints of recklessness in 2010, the consumer protection department submitted fewer than a quarter to the quasi-court for discipline, according to a Tribune analysis of data obtained under the state's open records law.
City officials said they're not sure why so few made the cut but speculate they lacked enough details or a witness to fill out the written form usually needed to prosecute.
Officials acknowledged the complaint process can be cumbersome — a point on which Cheryl Cornett can agree. The Chicago flight attendant recently filed a complaint against a taxi driver who drove into a line of scattering pedestrians in Streeterville — but only after it took her an hour to navigate the website and reach a city employee by phone who could take her complaint.
If city regulators seek disciplinary action, the taxi drivers are summoned to a building on Superior Street in the River North neighborhood that houses another city agency: administrative hearings. That's where the bargaining begins.
Plea, plea, plea
Room 106 has a bench for a hearing officer, flanked by mostly bare white walls, two podiums and six wooden pews. Carved into the back of one pew is a profane reference to former Mayor Richard Daley.
During some of the busiest mornings, dozens of cabbies jockey for space while waiting their turn in front of the hearing officer. But the real action usually takes place in a small room near the doorway — closed to reporters and the public.
That's where several cabbies told the Tribune they were pressured by a city lawyer to make a deal or risk harsher fines and suspensions if they demanded a hearing.
Taxi driver Chris Chandler, who has been through the process several times, called it a "kangaroo court."
The quasi-court handles citizen complaints forwarded by the consumer protection department as well as other violations. It assessed more than $400,000 in fines and fees for more than 1,100 cases that alleged unsafe driving in 2010.
While some cabbies had to pay thousands of dollars, records show most reckless-driving cases were bargained down to "discourteous conduct" and assessed $115 in fines and fees each. City officials say they don't pressure cabbies and note that plea deals are common for courts coping with heavy caseloads.
Some cases went to hearings at which a lawyer for the consumer protection department acts as a prosecutor and tries to prove the allegations to a hearing officer employed by the separate city administrative hearings division. The hearing officer usually agrees with the consumer protection lawyer, typically assessing double the fines offered in plea deals. Plea deal or not, however, drivers remained on the roads.
Sometimes regulators didn't ask hearing officers to suspend or revoke licenses, records show. Other times, regulators asked but were rebuffed.
Even chronic offenders were regularly put back on the streets.
Most cabbies avoid even one reckless driving complaint over several years. The Tribune found 11 cabbies who got three or more just in 2010. Of those, nine were fined an average of $2,200 per driver.
One of the 11 was Shah, 54, the driver who topped the list of 2010 complaints. The Romeoville resident could not be reached for comment. Shah's son said his father was out of the country. His lawyer declined comment.
Staying on the road
Shah could have lost his license as early as 2008.
According to a complaint, Shah had a couple in the back seat while stopped at a red light north of the Loop. The "Don't Walk" sign began to flash, and Shah yelled at pedestrians still crossing the street. His female passenger told Shah the pedestrians weren't breaking the law. Shah began cursing at her. The woman and her husband demanded to be let out of the cab. Shah refused but slowed on State Street near Chicago Avenue.
"I was eight months pregnant at the time and scared for my safety!" the woman wrote on her complaint. "I opened the door and he floored it."
She and her husband waited and jumped out when Shah later stopped for traffic, according to the complaint.
Shah fought the charges at a hearing but lost. He was assessed an unusually stiff fine of $2,800 but kept his license. Regulators threatened to ban him from driving a cab only if he couldn't pay his fine.
He worked out a payment plan and kept renewing his chauffeur license. While paying off that fine, he became the focus of a string of complaints in early 2010.
Twice in three weeks, motorists alleged Shah almost caused collisions by cutting them off in traffic, once in the Loop and once in Lincoln Park. When the Lincoln Park driver pointed his finger at the cabbie, Shah turned his taxi around, chased him down and threatened to shoot him, according to the complaint.
Two months later, another driver complained that Shah cut him off on the Stevenson Expressway. When the driver flashed his headlights, Shah slammed on his brakes, followed the driver and swore at him, according to the complaint.
By then, city regulators made their first attempt to revoke Shah's chauffeur license. But a hearing officer instead fined Shah $390 and suspended his license three days.
Even though the hearing officer didn't revoke Shah's license, the consumer protection department could have taken him off the road. Under city code, the department must annually review chauffeur licenses and can consider disciplinary records in its decisions. It's a power the department has increasingly used to circumvent the hearing process and take questionable drivers off the road.
Shah's renewal happened to be up in the weeks after that hearing. Still, the consumer protection department renewed his chauffeur license.
In defending the decision, city officials noted Shah had gone through 2009 without a citizen complaint and had no active cases set for hearings. Still, records show that at the time he had two pending complaints that city regulators hadn't yet forwarded for hearings.
'Life in danger'
Two months after his license was renewed, Shah received his fourth unsafe driving complaint of 2010.
On the Kennedy Expressway heading into Chicago, Shah cut off an SUV and lost control of his cab, the passenger wrote in his complaint. The cab spun to a stop. Shah "stomped on the gas like a madman" and began chasing the SUV that Shah blamed for the mishap, the passenger reported.
According to the complaint, the passenger demanded to be let out but Shah refused. The passenger called 911 from his cellphone, told the operator about the chase and handed the phone to Shah. The operator told Shah to stop the chase. He again refused.
The chase ended near North Avenue when Shah couldn't find the SUV, the complaint said. He then took the passenger home. The meter read $52, but Shah cut the fare to $28. The passenger was furious he had to pay at all and asked the city to end Shah's taxi-driving career, according to the complaint.
"A taxicab driver put my life in danger and refused to release me when I demanded," the passenger wrote in his complaint.
The consumer protection department again filed charges against Shah, seeking to revoke his license. But the city later agreed to another plea deal, imposing a $650 fine.
The city had another reckless driving complaint pending, and in that case, it had also sought to revoke Shah's license. But it agreed to one more plea deal, for a $20 fine. Shah also agreed to take physical and drug tests as well as attend an eight-hour safety class.
The city said it doesn't track how often it seeks to revoke cabbies' chauffeur licenses only to bargain down to a fine. But from a limited sample of cases that could be analyzed, the Tribune found only one-fifth of those ended in revocation. In most of the other cases, the drivers kept their chauffeur licenses through plea deals.
City officials have since acknowledged they wrongly cut plea deals with some cabbies whose licenses should have been revoked — a practice they say they vow to tighten.
By the time of Shah's most recent plea deal last April, another fare had filed a complaint against him. This time, the complaint alleged, Shah was distracted while talking on his cellphone and had to slam on the taxi's brakes to avoid rear-ending a car.
The minivan cab was equipped with a wheelchair ramp, the complaint said, and the sudden stop threw the passenger into the metal ramp. She told regulators she hurt her wrists but wouldn't have complained except that Shah didn't apologize and insisted that if she paid with a credit card she give him a tip to compensate him for the hassle. She paid with cash — with no tip — and Shah swore at her, according to the complaint.
While the latest complaint was under review, the consumer protection department in June renewed Shah's license during its annual review.
But city officials told the Tribune that the renewal was a mistake and that they planned not to renew Shah's license. They said that in the past year they were sowing the seeds to deny his renewal but needed a legal basis to show he was unsafe. That's why, they said, they agreed to the earlier plea deals because they forced Shah to admit his misdeeds.
Those plans went awry, officials said, when a city employee missed the directive.
Records show that the mistake escaped attention even weeks later when the city filed new charges over the latest incident.
Regulators caught the mistake only after the Tribune asked about Shah this month. Officials rescinded his license the next day and disciplined the employee who had renewed it.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun