Saturday, May 18, 2013
Eye Team Investigates: Convicted Rapists Allowed To Drive Taxis In Anchorage
According to municipal ordinance, if the conviction is five years old, rapists are allowed to get chauffeur’s license--if they don't have to register as sex offenders
ANCHORAGE—In the same week last month, Anchorage saw two 43-year-old Anchorage cab drivers accused of rape. One was convicted, just days after the other was charged. Both worked for Yellow Cab.
But as the Eye Team found: people convicted of rape are still allowed to drive taxis.
At 5:30 a.m., March 19, 2010, a woman who had been drinking with friends at the Comfort Inn in Ship Creek asked hotel staffers to call her a cab.
Yellow Cab number 57 showed up. Rafael Lopez Martinez was behind the wheel.
The woman asked to be taken to her home in Russian Jack, then passed out. When she came to, she found herself naked, from the waist down, with Martinez lying next to her.
About a year-and-a-half later, as Martinez stood trial for second-degree sexual assault, another Yellow Cab driver was also accused of rape on Sunday afternoon, Aug. 21.
Chidiebere Norman Nwokorie drove Yellow Cab number 53 into Mountain View and picked up a woman who said she needed a ride to the Fifth Avenue Mall.
Unable to find what she was looking for, the woman asked him to take her home. Instead, police said Nwokorie took her to a secluded area of Ship Creek Road, where he sexually assaulted her.
The woman managed to get away and run into the street, half-naked, and stayed in a passerby’s car until police arrived.
Days later, in the first case, Martinez was convicted for sexual assault.
“Historically, here in our unit, we may do two or three investigations a year involving cab drivers,” said Detective Sergeant Kenneth McCoy of the Anchorage Police Department’s special victims unit. “Their position allows them greater access than others. People are going to willingly get into their cars and seek them out for transportation purposes.”
Brent Fraser, the municipality’s only full-time transportation inspector, agreed.
“It is a position of trust,” Fraser said. “We’re relying on cab drivers in times of need to take care of people who are intoxicated or impaired or perhaps can’t really look out for themselves.”
Fraser is tasked with overseeing the entire taxi industry in Anchorage.
“There’s 173 taxi cabs and then we have in the neighborhood of 700 people who have a chauffeur license,” Fraser said. “But at any given time, there's probably in the neighborhood of 350 cab drivers on the road in the course of a day.”
To get a chauffeur’s license, drivers have to pay about $300 and pass a background check.
“There’s a number of different convictions which will disqualify you from being eligible to hold a cab license,” Fraser said. “They’re things having to do with drug crimes, violent crimes, sexual offense, theft, burglary.”
The Eye Team randomly selected 14 drivers of the 718 who are licensed and found five of them have criminal histories that include charges for drugs and driving under the influence.
According to court documents, one licensed cab driver had seven criminal charges, including drunken driving, assault and violating restraining orders.
“We look at convictions within the last five years,” Fraser said.
According to municipal code, a chauffeur's license can be reinstated one year after a drunken driving conviction and five years after other criminal convictions—which means once Martinez, who’s now a convicted rapist, is out of jail, he can get back behind the wheel of a taxi.
“If the conviction is outside the five-year window, yes,” Fraser said. “I guess you can look at it as: the person who has been convicted and served the penalty that’s prescribed, they’ve paid their debt to society and deserve the opportunity to move on. I’m here as the referee in the game, not the rule maker.”
But in Portland, the conviction window is 10 years. In Denver, the requirement is similar to Anchorage—at least five years before applicants are eligible to get a chauffeur’s license to drive a taxi.
“I know there are some places around the country where it's a much less rigorous process: you simply show up, show your driver's license and poof you're a cab driver,” Fraser said.
Some Anchorage Assembly members want to change municipal code so that anyone even charged with sexual assault would not be allowed to drive a taxi.
If Martinez is required to register as a sex offender when he’s sentenced in December, however, he will not be allowed to get a chauffeur’s license.
“The two profiled drivers (Nwokorie and Martinez)—they’re not indicative of cab drivers as a whole,” Fraser said. “Most cab drivers are just people doing their job. They want to do the job, earn the money, go home. They don’t want problems with people.”
Once the applicant passes the background check and receives the chauffeur’s license, the cab driver is an independent contractor and does not necessarily answer to a supervisor.
“Anchorage doesn't have any cab companies,” Fraser said. “All Anchorage has is dispatch companies. Checker and Yellow are dispatch companies. They don't own any cabs. They don’t employ any drivers.”
So when you call for a cab, you could be dealing with up to four different entities: the dispatcher, the cab owner, the permit holder and the driver.
“It's their responsibility to ensure that their customers feel safe in their cabs,” McCoy said. “So that's something as a business owner I would probably take a long, hard look at is who's driving my cabs.”
Ultimately, though, the passenger is the one who pays the price. For at least two Anchorage women, that cost was far more than just a cab fare.