Andy Chung became suspicious when he turned down Figueroa Street. He had received a call asking for a ride to Westwood. But as he approached the Hotel Figueroa, he saw that another vehicle had been pulled over by the police. He kept driving.
A few minutes later, the fare called again and asked why the cab never showed up.
"The driver was there," Chung said. "The police were there. Are you the police?"
"I'm not the police," the man replied. "I'm a student. I need to go to Westwood."
In fact, the man was an undercover cop. Shortly after Chung circled back to the hotel, he was in handcuffs — accused of operating an illegal taxi.
Chung, 65, is a state-licensed limo driver, with valid registration and insurance. Nevertheless, he had run afoul of the byzantine licensing scheme that governs taxi services. And he was about to pay dearly for it.
At a court hearing in March, Chung refused to accept a plea bargain. He believed he had followed the rules. The judge found him guilty and sentenced him to 150 days behind bars.
"It was so bleak," Chung tells the Weekly, through a Korean interpreter. "It was really unfair and unthinkable what they did to me, for such a minor thing."
If you've ever taken a taxi in L.A., you've paid a fee for "bandit taxi enforcement." Every year, taxi passengers pay about $800,000 in such fees, which cover overtime for LAPD officers to pursue illicit cab drivers.
While most bandit cabs are unlicensed, a substantial portion is actually state-licensed limo drivers, like Andy Chung.
Los Angeles launched its crackdown on bandit cabs in 2007. In that year, the city imposed a 20-cent surcharge on each taxi fare in order to pay for LAPD overtime. Since then, officers have arrested about 1,000 drivers each year.
But of those, perhaps 20 percent are state-licensed limo drivers, whom police have targeted since a 2009 ordinance.
Taxi drivers have long complained about unfair competition from limos, especially near downtown hotels. Taxis are supposed to have the exclusive right to pick up passengers on the sidewalk. All limo trips are supposed to be "pre-arranged." But over the years, taxi drivers have alleged that limo drivers pay off doormen to funnel hotel guests to them instead.
Taxis responded by pressuring the city to crack down. "They tell us they would like us to enforce more against the illegal town cars," Tom Drischler, the city's taxicab administrator, says. "If they're operating like a taxicab, that's against the law. But that has to be documented."
There's a good case for regulating taxis as a public utility, which the city does. Regulation ensures that taxis serve poor populations and meet minimum safety and wage standards. But leaving it up to each city to set its own regulations, while regulating limos through the state, creates a confusing patchwork that can lead to absurd results.
"It's completely nuts," Gary Blasi, a UCLA professor who has studied L.A.'s taxi system, says. "If you were starting from scratch, you wouldn't do it that way."
Under state regulations, limo drivers are required to fill out a "waybill" that lists the names of the passengers to be transported and where they will be picked up and dropped off. The waybill is the proof that the limo trip was pre-arranged.
Chung's "crime" was having an incomplete waybill. He had taken down the location but had not written down the undercover officer's name. Chung says that he asked the officer's name, and the officer refused to give it. (At trial, the officer testified that Chung never asked for his name.)
Chung worked for many years as a tractor-trailer driver before switching to taxis. Initially, he says, he drove without any license at all. After several arrests, though, he says he was advised to get a state limo license, which would allow him to operate legally. He did, figuring he was out of trouble.
"It's not like I don't have a license," Chung says. "I have a proper license. For them to use the power to weed out small people — that's bad for my livelihood."
Chung's case was prosecuted by Greg Culling, an unpaid intern in a program created by L.A. City Attorney Carmen Trutanich to address staffing shortages while giving rookie lawyers some courtroom experience.
At trial, Culling urged Judge Carol Rehm to set an example. "Probation is clearly not enough for him," Culling argued. "We would like the maximum sentence."
Rehm agreed, sentencing Chung to 150 days. Chung says he was kept alone in a cell. He was initially unable to contact his family, had trouble communicating with his jailers to address medical issues, and at one point contemplated suicide. He was released early, after eight days, due to overcrowding.
"It's a disproportionate amount of time," says Nikhil Ramnaney, Chung's public defender. "This offense is regulatory. I think it's a waste of resources to use the criminal justice system and the LAPD to pursue these kinds of cases."
Culling referred questions about the case to Frank Mateljan, the city attorney's spokesman. In an email, Mateljan told the Weekly that "your guy Andy Chung has three prior offenses" and was sentenced for violating his probation.
A 150-day sentence is highly unusual in such cases. The city ordinance imposes a $100 fine for a first offense and a $250 fine for a second offense. A third offense can be prosecuted as a misdemeanor, but even then it rarely results in jail time, because the crime is considered a "low priority."
"I don't know of any major criminal slumlord who got close to that," UCLA professor Blasi says. The enforcement system, he says, "operates capriciously."
Technology may further complicate an already confusing system. Uber, a San Francisco–based startup, allows passengers to arrange limo trips with their smartphones. The Uber app works as a booking service for state-licensed town cars. Taxi regulators in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., have alleged that Uber is actually operating as a taxi service without following local taxi ordinances.
The company does not appear to have much of a foothold yet in Los Angeles, but if it gains traction here, both the city and the franchised taxi companies are likely to raise similar concerns. These issues would not exist if taxi and limo regulations were integrated.
In Blasi's ideal world, taxi regulation would be handled at a regional level — by the county. That would eliminate the patchwork of municipal ordinances and make it easier to integrate taxi and limo services into a regional transportation network.
"We've evolved a system that's the worst of all worlds at this point," Blasi says. "It doesn't work very well for drivers, and it doesn't work very well for the people who want to use cabs."
Soomi Ko, of Ko & Martin certified interpreters and translators, provided Korean interpretation.