Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Busting Limos

On Tuesday morning August 30th, I rode along with Taxi Services Investigators Eric Richholt and Charles Castillo as they went hunting for limos engaging in illegal activities. Their main focus was on moving limos out of the white zones around hotels by giving them $90 tickets for parking longer than 10 minutes.

Eric is German American and Charles is from New Mexico and of mixed Mexican and Isleta Pueblo heritage. I mention this contrast because it helps them work well together. Charles has his hair braided down his back to his waist and wears a black leather jacket. He looks more like a drug pusher than a cop. Eric, on the other hand, wears an MTA jacket with his badge on the front.

"We're like Yin and Yang," Charles told me. "Nobody could figure us hanging out but we work great together."

What they want to do is give the tickets to the limo drivers before they have a chance to take off. The usual M.O is for Charles to scope out the limos and write down the information then give it to Eric who makes the bust.

"I do my Pueblo Indian thing," Charles says, "You don't want to spook the deer ... you don't want to spook the fish..." And, indeed, he did his job without the limo drivers ever noticing that they were targets.

Charles and Eric start out most days by checking out the Park 55 and moving on to the Hilton, the Nikko, the Westin and Union Square. On Tuesday, we ended up at the Grand Hyatt.

They gave out a couple of tickets at the Park 55 and the Mason Street side of the Hilton. Then, they pulled a double on the Taylor Street side of the Monaco Hotel.

On the far right side of the frame you can see the Monaco's doorman trying to gesture to a limo driver to leave before Charles (behind the doorman) can give him a ticket. The driver understood the gesture too late and got nailed.

Of course the limo drivers and the doormen collude with each other. Giving out a few tickets has a reverberating effect when the drivers and the doormen begin calling each other and their friends. Tuesday's ticketing turned out great for the cab drivers in front of the Nikko, four of whom were given airports that probably would've gone to limos a month ago.

"All these white zones used to be lined with limos before we started handing out citations," Eric said, "One driver told me that he hadn't had an airport out of a certain hotel in five years. Now almost all the white zones are open" so cab drivers are getting better loads.

Eric ticketed a limo in front of the Clift (See lead photo.) The driver didn't like this very much and argued that the hotel had told him that he could park there.

Eric politely told the limo driver that parking in a white zone was illegal.

The doorman of the Clift (looking in the window of a Yellow Cab) gave the taxi driver an airport while the limo driver yelled expletives after Eric.

I was impressed by the professionalism of both Charles and Eric as they dealt calmly and politely with sometimes angry limo drivers.

Cab drivers, on the other hand, were applauding or shouting words of encouragement to the duo. "The real satisfaction of the job," Eric said,  "is getting thanked by the taxi drivers."

Charles added that both he and Eric come from working class families so they can relate to the problems that drivers have earning a living and putting food on the table. He said that they, "want to help out and go to bat" for the drivers "to help make a level playing field."

We ended up in the parking garage across from the Grand Hyatt spying on the infamous "Big Mike" who is reputed to be the greediest and most arrogant doorman in the city. We watched as Big Mike talked with a limo driver and then pocketed a bill (below) as he walked away.

The limo drove into an alley where the vehicles usually wait until Big Mike signals them. This, by the way, is a tribute to the work of Charles and Eric who have chased the limos off the white zones and forced the doormen into backdoor deals. The usual scenario now, according to Eric, is for Big Mike to give a hand sign to a limo driver if there is an airport and then limo comes around the block to pick it up. But, if there is a short, Big Mike blows his whistle for a taxi.

One consequence of this, Eric told me, is that many cab drivers don't stop when Big Mike whistles because they know the ride has to be a short.

On this day, however, Big Mike has heard about us on the grapevine and knows he's being watched. For a change, he blows his whistle for taxis to pick up the airport rides. There are no limos around.

All in all, I saw about 15 airports being picked up by beaming and delighted cabdrivers during our short tour of the hotels.

Charles and Eric have only been ticketing for five weeks but they've already had a huge effect on the business. So far they've given out 28 white zone violations including the seven they handed out during their time with me. They have also given out three of the $5,000 citations that Chris Hayashi drew up the legislation for and these tickets all were given to people without A-cards driving Long Term leases.

This is a good start but problems remain. For one thing, Eric is fairly sure that hotel managers are getting kickbacks from the doormen. The hotels have been notified that accepting tips from limo and taxi drivers is now criminal conduct but there is a lot of money involved and, just like with tipping at cab company windows, the laws are hard to enforce.

Another problem is that limos are regulated by the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) and Taxi Services has no control over them except for where they park. Citations for illegal limos can only be given by the PUC or the police. Fortunately, Charles and Eric have recently contacted the PUC's investigative arm and they have been very co-operative. A PUC investigator has begun working with Taxi Services and has photographed and cited several illegal limousines. The police department apparently has also set up stings for limos playing flags.

The final problem is that the District Attorney's office so far has been reluctant to prosecute. Apparently, they see this as a lot of work for very little gain. Eric and Charles are hoping to show multiple and repeated offenses that the District Attorney would find worth pursuing.

At least progress is being made and we are seeing the signs already.

Charles wanted me emphasize the "appreciation and respect" that he and Eric feel for Deputy Director Chris Hayashi's "leadership, courage and vision" and say that this "motivates them to do better" work.

In fact, Hayashi created the Taxi Investigator civil service classification; recruited, hired and trained the Investigators; got authority from the Board of Supervisors to tow, write parking tickets and create a new misdemeanor against doormen; got permission from the SFMTA Board of Directors for adjustments to penalties; and took numerous other steps before Charles and Eric could hit the streets. 

All in all, Hayashi worked for two years to make these busts happen. She's now hoping to get a few more investigators soon - which would become a much easier and faster task if she became the Director of the Taxi Services Division of the SFMTA.

Eric and Charles


  1. You can certainly write good articles, when it pleases you Healy

    Johnny Walker

  2. Now let's get rid of those pesky 5% card fees and Taxi Tvs.

  3. Ed,

    That was some great reporting. I would not have known to much about this without you hitting the streets with these guys. Thank you for bringing some good news regarding this horrible problem plaguing drivers for so long. I hope they keep nailing these illegal limos, especially with some of those $5,000 tickets. Is that possible? And as you point out, a huge amount of thanks must go out to Director Hayashi. She should know that she has many loyal supporters.

  4. Great, great news.
    I believe there was a law passed that a limo drivers way bill could be checked but maybe it has to be a cop.
    SFO supposedly had an "enhanced limo enforcement program" a couple of years ago but the prick at SFO refused to tell me anything about the results so I imagine there were not many results.
    BTW Han, the companies can eat the 5% no problem but we will need a gate raise of course. We are a regulated industry and you can't just create "unfunded mandates"
    A quick calculation on the back of an envelope reveals that half of Metro's profits would go up in smoke with the 5%
    It is spelled fare rather than fair

  5. Hi John, You'll be getting a 20% fair increase staring tomorrow and some drivers like the rear-seat terminals. The 40 increase on the drop will pretty much cover the 5% by itself.

    Hey Johnny Walker, That's the first nice thing you've ever said to me. But I think that my last post about needing to become a Division is actually much more important. If Hayashi had been (as she should have been all along) the Director of a Division, these busts couldn't started a year ago. It's all a mater of power. If she can be restored to her rightful position, the problems of illegal limos and taxis will soon become history

  6. Ed,

    I just wanted to let you know that we got our first out-of-town bandit cab yesterday. Driver is a SF resident driving for Yellow Top Cab out of San Leandro. He picked up a street hail at Cesar Chavez and Mission and took him all the way to Palo Alto. We had him pull over on a city street in Palo Alto and cited him the $5000, operating without a permit. He admitted that he drives in SF every Friday and Saturday night. That’s 1 down and hundreds more to go, but it’s a start.

    Enjoy your holiday weekend.

    Eric Richholt

  7. Do you know the difference between heaven and hell? In heaven the English are the police, the Swiss are the bankers, the French are the chefs, the Italians are the lovers, and the Germans are the mechanics.
    In hell, the English are the cooks, the Swiss are the lovers, the French are the mechanics, the Italians are the bankers and the Germans are the police.
    Give 'em hell, Eric and Charles!

  8. Sounds like Taxi Drivers need to contact the DA en masse and tell him that our livelyhoods are not trivial and we need this enforcement to continue and expand. Should we call, write or email the DA now??

  9. Is there a way to pass on the bandit cab information to Eric n Charles? Maybe a website,an email address or a number where we can send txt message. I see regular bandit cabs working at night time. Nothing hurts more than seeing a bandit cab with a fare while you n fellow drivers drive around in circles without any luck.

  10. Hi anon,

    At the moment I think Eric and Charles are too understaffed to take call. At least 2 more investigators are needed. Hayashi is working on it. If Taxi Services becomes a Division again, it would be much easier.


  11. Christopher: I had always heard the joke as follows:

    The best in life: a Japanese wife, an American salary, a French chef and a British house.

    The worst in life: an American wife, a Japanese house, a French salary and a British chef.

  12. This is a great post and the pictures you have shared are truly nice. Thanks for sharing.

  13. I wonder if it was such a good idea to post a photo of Eric and Charles. I would bet that there are some Limo drivers who look at this web site just like us cabbies. Now they may see them coming.

  14. There are several Luxor-like fake cabs (my guess being pre-hybrid former Luxor SF color scheme cabs) roaming around SF operating as bandit cabs. They have taxi top lights, meters, commercial plates, the exact Luxor SF paint, but the door decal has been altered to replace "Luxor" with other wording and the "San Francisco Taxicab" decals are also changed. We have all seen these operating around SF, some for years.

    There are many other examples of fake cabs.

    Would it help Eric & Charles if drivers collected the lic plate numbers and/or photos of bandit cabs, with time and place info. Collectively, we see so much but there hasn't been any point in documenting it.

    Just the other night, I was right behind a fake cab on Market St at 3rd, and tried to point it out to an officer in a patrol car as I passed him. His response was a dirty look, and the comment,"Go pick up a fare."

    If we could forward lic plate and photos to the MTA, and the MTA mailed warning letters to registered owners advising them of the penalties, might this just have some effect? And could this also help support a case if later that fake cab was cited by Charles, Eric, or SFPD Traffic?

    In the case of cabs like these fake Luxor look-alikes, shouldn't it be illegal to transfer ownership with paint and decals intact? Couldn't the provenance be easily traced back to a permit-holder?

  15. Hi,

    I think it's a good idea to keep records but the way the law reads they have to catch the taxi's in the act. They also need a few more investigators.

    Start documenting it and i'll try to find out how they can use the data.


  16. This is absurd.
    I've been a hotel manager for 6 years. We offer a taxi stand for cab drivers' benefit, as well as town car services for hotel guests, and our limo company has an exclusive contract for the hotel, for hotel guests only.
    Limo drivers are just as working class as cab drivers, most are immigrants trying to provide a living for their families.
    Town cars offer the same trip for a higher rate, for cleaner cars, more professional service.
    Every guest is given the option, legally, for basic taxi service, or for a higher price a comfortable ride.
    I see these innocent limo drivers ticketed all the time, because SF laws back the taxi's irrationally.
    Please, you're delusional if you think healthy competition is stealing taxi business

    1. I have read your information....its such a great information This kind of information that must be shared across the Web.

      san francisco airport limo

  17. I know non of the hotel have a contract with the limo company all this is the backdoor deal with limo and doorman or some one in management position you can not show evidence of limos working for the hotel.