Five cab drivers are suing the District government, arguing that regulations requiring taxis to install credit-card readers and informational dome lights violate their constitutional rights and should be undone. The class-action lawsuit, which was filed yesterday in federal district court, also claims that the new technology taxis are supposed to feature are acts of age discrimination and violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Cabbies have had several months—including multiple deadline extensions—to install new dome lights that show if their cab is available and start taking forms of payment other than cash, but since October 1, the DC Taxicab Commission, which is named as one of the defendants in the suit, has said it will impound any cab operating without the new equipment.
The suit argues that the new credit-card payment systems violate drivers’ and passengers’ Fourth Amendment rights because they use GPS technology to track taxis’ movements and count how many customers are paying with cards. The GPS data is transmitted back to the commission.
The drivers suing the city also complain about having to collect a 25-cent surcharge that was introduced earlier this year. That fee, which is paid by taxi customers, is remitted back the commission, which says it uses the money to pay for oversight of the new payment regulations. The surcharge was added the same time base fares increased from $3 to $3.25. The suit argues that if the surcharges are not submitted back to the Taxicab Commission in a timely way, “the Commission will unilaterally access the taxicab driver’s vendor-established and mandated account and deduct the amount due to this agency for the cash transactions from the account maintained for the credit card transactions.”
The suit also argues that the new dome lights are a form of age and disability discrimination, but the complaint is somewhat vague as to how. Most of the District’s 7,300 licensed cabs are still rolling around with the old dome lamps, which simply read “Taxi” and “Call 911.” (A driver in distress can press a button inside the cab to make the light flash.) The new lamps, which are being introduced slowly, feature a taxi’s registration number and whether the car is available or hired.
The suit claims the new lights can only be operated from the outside, creating a physical hardship for drivers who suffer from a physical disability or are over the age of 40, as all five plaintiffs are. The suit seeks to define as many as 2,000 drivers a class that should be exempted from the new regulations.
The commission's spokesman, Neville Waters, says the new lamps are connected to the new meters, and when a fare begins, the "for hire" sign turns off. He also says that upgraded cabs can also send emergency alerts directly to DC's Office of Unified Communications. There is a switch on the side of the new lights, but Waters does not know if it is required to be operated manually when drivers need to signal their cabs are out of service.
Billy Ponds, the attorney who filed the suit, did not respond to several interview requests, but at least one DC official with an interest in taxi regulations has a theory about his motivation. “A lawyer is making some money,” says DC Council member Mary Cheh, who pushed through the law that authorized the Taxicab Commission to write the new credit card and dome light regulations.
Cheh, a constitutional lawyer herself, does not think the lawsuit and accompanying request for a restraining order against the regulations are very solid. “Good luck to them,” she says. “Time’s up. Compliance is what we want.”