05/23/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Taxi Drivers: Guilty Until Proven Innocent

Every cabbie in New York City knows the Taxi & Limousine Commission is not on their side. Finally, now, the rest of the city can know it, too. The recent "taxi scam" story has served to bring the TLC's own fraudulent and irresponsible practices into the public eye.

Using data culled from the new and highly controversial meter technology, the TLC issued a press release a few weeks ago stating that over 30,000 of the city's cabbies overcharged passengers at least once, and that 3,000 did it it on a regular basis, to the tune of $8.3 million. It appears the TLC jumped the gun, sending out a press release based on data that was not fully and properly analyzed.

At a City Council hearing this Monday, according to the New York Times, TLC commissioner Matthew Daus indicated that a majority of the incidents in fact "resulted in no additional charges, suggesting they might have been simple mistakes." Daus told the Times that "the initial numbers released by his office reflected a 'worst-case scenario,' but he felt compelled to alert the public."

As a former taxi driver, it was clear from the start that most of the cabbies in question had probably hit the out-of-town fare button by mistake. Small buttons, big fingers, and new computerized technology have all contributed to the rise of meter errors. But, in my experience, when those mistakes occurred, it was a simple thing to reach a verbal agreement with my passengers on what the ultimate fare would be. Based on an informal survey of taxi drivers, this is still a common practice when the meter reflects the wrong rate of fare.

For Daus to issue a press release accusing two-thirds of the city's taxi force of committing a crime is inflammatory, antagonistic, and utterly reckless. But it's hardly surprising. This is what taxi drivers go through on a small scale every single day.

As far as the TLC is concerned, taxi drivers are guilty until proven innocent. The TLC's own administrative courtrooms, where drivers must fight tickets and complaints, are widely known as "kangaroo courts." This refers to a courtroom in which the outcome is determined beforehand, in this case where taxi drivers are considered guilty from the start. If you want an earful, ask your driver about it the next time you're in a cab.

With the Constitution of the United States thus ignored, New York's taxi drivers must struggle daily to prove their innocence in front of unsympathetic administrative law judges, much like they just had to do in front of the city and its press. And even with the most skilled lawyers at hand, it is extremely rare for an accused cabbie to emerge from TLC headquarters (the taxi industry's "Death Star") without paying a hefty fine and even, in some cases, losing their hack license - and their livelihood - altogether.

As for the minority of cabbies who actually did use the meter to intentionally cheat their passengers, there's no excuse for what they did, and they should be taken off the streets immediately. But the rest of the taxi industry should not have to pay for their crimes. Being publicly demonized by the TLC only makes the job - one of the city's most dangerous and lowest paid - more difficult than it already is. Perhaps if taxi drivers' own governing agency didn't automatically treat them with suspicion and disdain, the rest of the city wouldn't either.