Undercover police target taxi drivers for overcharging

Unfair fares?

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FLICKR USER LEONID MAMCHENKOV
  • flickr user Leonid Mamchenkov
The Charleston Police Department has begun cracking down on cab drivers following complaints of overcharging.

Last week, undercover officers carried out a sting operation to find drivers breaking the law when it comes to fare prices. According to a city ordinance, cab drivers are prohibited from charging a customer more than $7 for all daytime trips between 5 a.m. and midnight that pick up and discharge on the peninsula. In the case of group trips downtown, a $1 surcharge is permitted for each additional passenger, but that’s the limit unless you leave the peninsula or go looking for a late-night drive. Apparently, not all drivers have been playing by the rules.

Responding to numerous public complaints over high fares, officers dressed as civilians randomly targeted six cab companies on the evening of Fri. Feb. 19, according to an incident report from the Charleston Police Department. During the first night of the operation, drivers with two of the six companies were found in violation of the city’s ordinance.

Following a ride from the Market area to a bar on King Street, a driver with the Tropical Taxi company reportedly charged an undercover officer $8, rather than the $7 flat fee, the report says. After the undercover officer exited the vehicle, her partner then performed a traffic stop on the cab and issued the driver a citation. Later that evening, a driver with Williams Taxi and Limo Service also charged the officer $8 for a ride from East Bay Street near the market to the intersection of King and Woolfe streets, according to the incident report.

During the remainder of that evening’s undercover operation, the drivers from the other four companies solicited — Charleston Classic Taxi, Yellow Top, Charleston Transport, and Seven Star — were found to be operating within the city’s regulations.

Undercover operations continued Feb. 22 when an officer approached a driver with the Seven Star cab company and requested a ride from the Francis Marion Hotel to the City Marina, according to an incident report. After arriving at their destination, the officer claims to have been charged $8 for the ride, at which time the driver was issued a citation by another member of the police.

But as local law enforcement focuses on illegal cab fares, some taxi drivers feel overwhelmed by the city’s regulations.

“You put out an ordinance, target a specific group of people that the ordinance is supposed to be directed at, yet they don’t properly publicize it,” says taxi driver Harvey Williams, who argues that he was unaware of the $7 rate limit and believes the city should do more to keep cab companies up to date on important regulations.

“Every year you have to get your chauffeur’s license. You have to be vetted. Now we have this new kid on the block, this Uber, who doesn’t have to do any of that,” he says. “Why don’t you attach the new ordinances on the application? ... There’s various ways that you can get the information out to the people that you are targeting with a new law.”

Seven Star cab company released a response to the news of the police department’s undercover efforts, saying that their driver who was cited is “relatively new” and another one of the company’s drivers was found in complete compliance with the city’s ordinance. According to the statement, the company claims that there is unfair treatment of cab companies in relation to the city’s Uber drivers whose actions they say go unnoticed by police.

The statement added, “Rules should apply to everyone is what we believe, but we don’t see it that way on the streets of downtown Charleston.”

The city’s regulations allow transportation network companies such as Uber to set their own fares, but they must comply with transparency provisions by disclosing the fare calculation method, applicable rates, and an estimated fare.

According to Charleston Police Department spokesman Charles Francis, news of changes to the city’s ordinances governing taxis and limousines was disseminated on social and news media, and a public information session was held last May to allow cab drivers to meet with city staff.

Francis added, “Anyone who is driving a taxi also has some personal responsibility to know the laws of the business that they are operating.”


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