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Warrantless Search and Seizure of Videos from Taxicab’s in New Orleans and Why you Should Care

By May 16, 2013September 18th, 2019No Comments

While doing some research for one of my clients, I came across the article below (copied in its entirety).  This subject has bothered me a lot recently because of people’s rights being infringed upon after the Boston Bombings, the Connecticut Shootings, and more recently in New Orleans in pursuit of a cab driver who was accused of rape.  It bothers me because many Americans, but not all, are far too willing to give up their rights in a “State of Emergency.”  I am not comfortable with warrant-less searches and seizures and this article brings out some negative consequences of them:

BLOG.PAULSTAXI.COM: NEW ORLEANS REFORMS THE CAB INDUSTRY…. OH BOY!

NEW ORLEANS REFORMS THE CAB INDUSTRY…. OH BOY!

Welcome to New Orleans, one of America’s oldest ports, and known for its jazz, its cuisine, its ability to get smashed by hurricanes, and of course, its taxi services.  These plucky cab drivers put up with locals and tourists, business people and students, and do it with a charm, style and grace that is uniquely the province of cab drivers.  Just like cab drivers anywhere else.  And like cab drivers anywhere else, they are beset on all sides by the nanny state. In this case, it is the Taxicab and For Hire Vehicle Bureau.

The Superbowl is scheduled to be played in New Orleans in February of 2013, and in a spirit of improvement, the city council of New Orleans, led by the indefatigable Mayor  Mitch Landrieu, has passed a number of new regulations on taxicabs.  According to Mayor Landrieu, as quoted by The Loyola Maroon, “This is not an assault on the thousands of taxicab and for-hire drivers who serve as important frontline ambassadors for our city and region. But in order to enhance our position as an international travel and business destination, we must improve taxicab service in New Orleans.  My goal is to achieve a complete transformation by Superbowl XLVII in 2013.”

The transformation he wishes to see is that all the taxis in the city of New Orleans be upgraded. The new city ordinances, passed back on April 19th, and due to take effect on August 1st states that all taxis must be 11 years old or newer starting with the effective date of the new city ordinance, and 7 years of age or newer beginning January 1, 2014.  In addition, all cabs must carry new equipment and signage.  This equipment includes security cameras, GPS systems visible by the passengers, and  point of sale terminals for taking credit cards.  “The city believes that these reforms will benefit residents, the tourism industry, and even business and safety for the drivers,” gushes the Maroon.

The cab industry is complaining about these new regulations.  They are far too expensive, they say.  The Maroon quotes Syed Kazmi, the president of United Cabs, as estimating  “these reforms will cost taxi cab drivers $30-35,000. Kazmi owns five Certificates of Public Necessity and Convenience, [New Orleans equivalent of taxi medallions] permits which give him the right to pick up fares, so he could be facing a $150,000 tab.”  The owner of Nawlins Cab, Sheree Kerner, told the New York Times that new vehicles would cost between $25,000 and $30,000 each. The drivers are upset as well, especially the owner operators who have to finance these new upgrades out of their own pockets.  The cabbies and company owners were so upset, that they sued the city of New Orleans to block implementation of the new regulations which were to go in effect August 1.

But the cabbies are complaining for the wrong reasons.  It’s not just that the city is requiring them to buy new equipment.  In fact, the cost of the new equipment and taxi upgrades is not nearly what the cabbies say they are.  A brand new, state of the art security camera that meets all of the parameters set forth by the new regulations is only about $300.  And even the most expensive item on the list of government mandated “improvements”, the upgrade to newer taxis, is not as bad as the cab companies and owner operators would have people believe.   According to Kelly Blue Book, a 2008 Ford Crown Victoria LX (a very good choice for a taxicab), sells for $9,000 to $11,000.  And they can be purchased at auction for several thousand below book value.  This is a far cry from the $25k to $30k claimed by Ms. Kerner.  Nonetheless, the lawsuit went forward, and an injunction was granted, blocking the city from implementing the new “reforms”.  It is doubtful, however, that these regulations will be blocked permanently however.

It is just too bad the cab drivers are complaining about the wrong things. First is the attitude of the Mayor.

Acting like the city is his personal fiefdom, the mayor announced to the Loyola Maroon, “My goal is to achieve a complete transformation by Superbowl XLVII in 2013.”  And just how is this arrogant achievement to be attained?  James Garner (not the actor who has actually done some productive things with his life) an attorney for the City of New Orleans was remarkably candid. He said in open court, “We are using the city’s police powers to say we will have certain amenities for customers such as credit card machines and cameras in the cabs for better security.” How very nice of the city to use GUNS to provide amenities for the people of New Orleans.  What next?  Grenades through the windows of restaurants that choose bar soap over liquid soap in the lady’s room?  Where exactly does this provision of “certain amenities” at gunpoint stop?  Shall the city government bayonet the hotel staff if they forget to put a chocolate truffle on a newly made-up bed?

I agree that taxicabs should accept credit cards.  I have been doing so at my company for as long as I have been in business.  However, many drivers do not want to pay the exorbitant fees charged by the banks, and so decline to accept credit cards.  Why can’t that be their choice?  After all, it is the dollar bills that say “legal tender for all debts public and private”, NOT the credit cards.  And is it really all that hard to stop at an ATM?  Which brings us to a very salient point:  Who owns the taxi cab?  It certainly is not the city of New Orleans government.  Nor is it the Mayor himself, or his lawyerly little side kick Mr. Garner.  The cab company owns the cab.  And it should be the cab company who decides what form of payment to take or not take.  If the driver or the cab company choses to accept Thai Bhatt or livestock in trade, what business is that of the city council?

Oh, but it is public transportation.

Really?  No, a taxi is NOT public transportation.  “Public” things are owned and operated by a government entity; not an individual.  Such items include public parks, or public buildings, or public buses.  But not taxicabs.  They are private property owned by private individuals and private companies.  The government has no more business sticking objects in my property than it does putting spy cameras in the men’s room of Starbucks.  When the city government pays for the oil changes, and the brake pads, and the gasoline, like it does for public busses, then I might concede that they are “public” transportation.  Just because random individuals use my services does not make my cars property of the city.

As with many idiotic and ill-conceived city ordinances, the devil is in the details.  And looking at the details, the New Orleans taxi ordinance is downright scary.

The rules for these new security cameras to be forced upon cab companies are covered in New Orleans Municipal Code Sec. 162.660. In careful detail it spells out all the parameters for the new security cameras that the cab companies will be forced by the city’s “police powers” to provide.  The list is fairly exhaustive and rather technical, leading me to believe that it was drafted with more than a little “help” from a vendor or manufacturer of these devices, since your average city employee couldn’t find his own rear end with a map and both hands in his pockets. But the scary part is the next section down.

Sec. 162-660 par. (3) states “Use of digital still or video images. Access to any recorded image of persons in a taxicab is prohibited except by the taxicab and for-hire vehicle bureau or the New Orleans Police Department. Violation of access to images shall result in revocation of a CPNC and/or driver’s permit.”

Think about it:  Even though the cab companies must pay for the cameras, must pay for their installation, must assure their working order, ONLY the city of New Orleans employees will have access to the videographic records recorded by them.  Assume that a taxi company decided voluntarily to install its own cameras in vehicles for driver safety and quality control.  If the taxi company received a complaint about a driver’s behavior, the road manager could look up the proper footage on the video, and instantly determine if the driver was behaving badly, or if the passenger was out to lunch.  Not with this system.  With this system, it would be illegal for a company owner to access information gathered by his own machines.

Furthermore, paragraph (9) of the ordinance states “If bureau personnel or a New Orleans Police Department official requests access to any record produced by the digital security camera systems to assist in the investigation of any complaint or crime, the taxicab company must provide access to the record within 24 hours. Records may only be accessed by bureau personnel or a New Orleans Police Department official, and only when a bureau complaint number or police complaint number has been generated.”  Note that this does not require a warrant or a subpoena at all!  Simply a complaint!  Talk about violations of the Fourth Amendment

And there are all kinds of opportunities for abuse.  I have had passengers discuss very important business details, and all manner of personal things in my taxi.  With a government employee only required to generate a “complaint number”, this information is readily available to any drone who goes to work at the Taxi and Hired Vehicles Bureau.  And while there is punishment aplenty for cabbies and road managers who view their own videos without authorization, the city ordinances provide no consequences for city employees who do the exact same thing.

Then there is the credit card point of sale terminals required in each taxi.  As well as the forced installation being just as much a violation of the cab owner’s property rights, this provision is subject to its own brand of government stupidity. First is the required location of the terminal. Sec.162-159 par.2 mandates: “All [credit card terminals] must be bolted to the head rest or in an area approved by the bureau in the passenger compartment.”  Now, anyone who knows anything at all about cars realizes that the back of the front seats and the head rests are padded for a reason.  In a crash, the body of a rear seat passenger is thrown forward.  If he is not wearing a seat belt, his face will hit the back of the seat in front of him.  What better place to put a heavy metal object then right where the passenger’s face will land in a crash!  This is the exact same problem caused by the non-bulletproof partition in New York’s taxi fleet.

But not only that, Sec.162-659 par.(8) states “The bureau shall have unlimited online access to all information collected by the PIM.”  You get that?  If you use your credit card in a taxi in New Orleans, the Taxi and For Hire Vehicle Bureau can access all your purchase information at any time without any oversight whatsoever. And that makes perfect sense because no city of New Orleans employee has ever been arrested for anything. They are all paragons of virtue.

NOT!

My advice to anyone who goes to New Orleans is very simple.  If these city ordinances take effect, and you find yourself in a New Orleans taxicab, mind what you say.  City employees will be listening and watching.  And be careful not to sit in the rear seat with the credit card terminal.  If you do sit there, wear your seat belt… tightly.  Last, don’t ever use a credit card to pay for a taxi in New Orleans.  You don’t know who will have access to your numbers.  Pay with cash.  There are ATMs everywhere.

My advice to cab company owners in New Orleans is simple too.  Stop letting these fools in government push you around and stomp all over your property rights.  Don’t you realize that a mere 4 taxicabs driving abreast on the 10 at rush hour at about 25 mph will practically shut down the entire city, and be an incredible protest? Yes, it is expensive to follow these new government regs.  But it is expensive in many more ways than just the money.  It isn’t always “all about the Benjamins”.

My advice to cab drivers in The Big Easy: Any time anyone wants to pay with a credit card and wants to use the government approved, government spied upon terminal, remind the passenger that the Taxi Bureau has UNLIMITED access to this transaction information.  You’ll never have to accept plastic again. Also, wait until you get some city official or some high muckity-muck in your cab.  Then talk him into saying something incredibly compromising or embarrassing.  It is very easy to remove a video camera SD card and download the video to YouTube.  The first one to post a video like this will get bragging rights for having gotten the damn big brother machines out of the cabs.