Assault, drunk driving, death threats: The cab drivers the city can’t get off the road
Hundreds of cabbies identified by the city as a possible danger to the public are striking deals that allow them to continue to pick up fares on Toronto’s streets.
Dale Brazao / Toronto Star
Beck driver Bernard Koranteng was convicted in 2007 of assaulting passenger Lori Slaunwhite outside St. Joseph’s hospital in May 2006. He also has a 2002 conviction for threatening death and a 2005 conviction for dangerous driving. He’s still picking up fares.
**By:**Emily Mathieu and Mary OrmsbyStaff Reporters, Published on Tue Feb 05 2013
Explore This Story
driver Bernard Koranteng has been convicted of assaulting a female passenger, threatening death and dangerous driving.
He is still picking up fares — one of 255 Toronto cabbies the city has tried and failed to get off the road.
Among them are drivers convicted of stunt racing.
Failing to stop for a school bus.
Failing to remain at the scene of an accident.
· Drunk driving.
A Star investigation has found that of nearly 340 drivers who appealed the city’s decision to refuse to grant or renew their taxi licence in the past five years, only 53 were denied. The majority of those who were already licensed were allowed to continue driving, usually as a result of a plea bargain made at a civilian appeals tribunal.
The Star also found that the city only checks a cab driver’s criminal and driving record every four years. A senior official said the city is evaluating whether every four years is enough after the Star raised the issue.
Many drivers who had been identified by the city as a possible danger to the public escaped with probation or a few days of suspension. Some had no conditions placed on their licence and all of this was done with very little public scrutiny.
When Lori Slaunwhite got into Koranteng’s cab outside St. Joseph’s hospital, she had no idea he had past criminal convictions. Neither did the City of Toronto department that licenses taxi drivers.
“What the city really needs to understand is we’re vulnerable when we get into somebody’s taxi,” said Slaunwhite, 39, a Toronto addiction and mental health consultant.
Leaving work at the hospital one day in May 2006, where she headed up a program on addiction and mental health, Slaunwhite hopped into Koranteng’s cab, telling him she had to pick up a puppy. As they started moving, he asked her to clarify and she said a “little dog.” He said no.
Slaunwhite offered to take another cab. Koranteng became enraged, recalls Slaunwhite, who tried frantically to get out. She couldn’t. The door latch was disabled on the inside. With Koranteng reaching back and grabbing at her, she reached through an open window and opened the door using the outside handle. She had to jump from the moving cab.
Koranteng was convicted in 2007 of assaulting Slaunwhite. He was sentenced to 12 months of probation and 50 hours of community service.
The city uses an honour system for drivers, asking them to report any criminal or highway traffic convictions. Koranteng did not. Nor did he tell the city about a 2002 conviction for threatening death and a 2005 conviction for dangerous driving following an incident with a Toronto police officer who spotted the cabbie accelerating backwards on busy Queen St. near Yonge St.
The officer tried to question Koranteng, who accused him of harassment, and when the officer asked for identification, Koranteng sped off, with the officer hanging on to the vehicle for 15 metres, banging on the window.
In Koranteng’s unsuccessful appeal of his dangerous driving conviction, he testified the officer told him to “move on,” which he said he did, adding he stopped promptly when the officer banged on his window. He was convicted of dangerous driving and his driver’s licence was suspended for one year. He did not serve jail time.
What happened to Koranteng next provides a window into the taxi world in Toronto.
A public complaint caused a background check, leading the city to discover his serious criminal convictions. He was then instructed by the city to attend a tribunal hearing.
But when Koranteng appeared at the Toronto licensing tribunal, a deal was struck between city lawyers and Koranteng’s lawyer to give him three years of probation and a 10-day suspension.
Koranteng would not talk about his convictions when the Star caught up with him at a garage. “You can do what you have to do, but I don’t want to take any part,” he told the Star in an earlier phone call. A review of Koranteng’s recent driving history shows two infractions for speeding in 2012.
Beck Taxi operations manager Kristine Hubbard wrote in an email to the Star that she would not comment on “any individual driver due to privacy concerns” when asked about Koranteng and former Beck driver Mohammad Younas Choudhry, who was convicted of sexual offences in 2005. Hubbard also wrote that Beck trusts the city to “ensure that only qualified drivers” renew their taxi licences annually.
City licensing chief Bruce Robertson acknowledges drivers rarely report convictions to the city. If he had his way, Koranteng would be off the road.
“The tribunal has unfettered power to make any decision they want. Does (city) staff agree with those decisions? Quite often not,” Robertson told the Star.
“The records that we get or the complaints that we receive indicate that they potentially pose a danger, so it is our job to react to it.”
Despite the challenges, Robertson said the “system works; it just works slowly,” much like civil and criminal courts.
To find out how many cabbies among the city’s 10,400 taxi drivers have criminal or highway traffic charges or convictions, the Star made several requests to the city for documents from tribunal hearings, which are public and are typically overseen by three of a total of seven members appointed by city council.
The city would not allow the Star to be alone with the public documents related to its hearings. It cost us $1,000 to make copies and pay for a supervisor to oversee the reporter. The records we received are incomplete — only some cases indicated what type of crimes or infractions drivers committed.
Among drivers still on the road: seven who failed to remain at accident scenes; 16 who failed to stop in a school bus zone; and seven with drinking and driving convictions. One man was convicted of sexually assaulting a youth, though it’s not clear if it occurred in the driver’s cab.
It doesn’t matter whether the offences occurred in the drivers’ cabs; the city takes them into account.
Balraj Deau is an example of a man with a lengthy record who is still driving. He stood before the Toronto Licensing Tribunal in 2006 and 2009 because of a troubled past — including six convictions for assault — that he told the Star was because of fights he was having with his extended family over immigration issues. He said he never had a problem with passengers.
A lengthy summary presented to the tribunal in 2009 also includes convictions for unlawful entry, threatening death, driving a tow truck without a licence and public intoxication. There is a conviction for driving under the influence in 1995.
In Deau’s 2009 case, his lawyer and a lawyer working for the city agreed on probation for three years, an agreement approved by the tribunal.
Deau met with the Star and described a harried life, working six nights a week, making very little money and supporting a son whose health problems mean he requires 24-hour care.
Deau said he chose not to fight his criminal charges because he didn’t have the money to hire a lawyer. He said his many driving tickets are for minor infractions and he said he has had nothing serious on his driving record for many years.
Deau said dangerous drivers should lose their licences, but he said he was allowed to keep his licence because it was determined he was “safe.” He renewed his licence on Jan. 15, 2013.
About 10,400 drivers staff some 5,000 taxis in Toronto, many operating under big brokerages such as Beck, Royal, Diamond and Co-op. Each brokerage has its own driver screening requirements.
To become a taxi driver in Toronto, licensed drivers must apply to the city and pay $600 for driver training and first-year licensing fees. They must provide a police background check and driving history when they apply. After that, licence renewals are yearly, but as the Star found, drivers only have to submit a criminal record and driving check every four years.
The city has established thresholds to identify potentially dangerous drivers: a criminal record and a spotty driving history do not necessarily mean a driver will lose his licence. It’s up to the city — but ultimately the civilian tribunal — to decide.
Once the tribunal is involved, the process can go in two directions. The driver’s lawyer and a city lawyer can agree on a penalty that is then given to the tribunal for approval. Or, if a penalty can’t be agreed on, a hearing will be held, which can include calling witnesses and medical experts.
Penalties can include losing a taxi licence. More commonly, the Star found, the driver ends up with a suspension or probation. If on probation, the drivers must produce background checks at the time of annual renewal and disclose any new convictions within three business days, based on an honour system.
All taxi drivers are bound by city bylaws to report new charges or convictions — whether they happened in a cab or not — but that seldom happens, said city licensing chief Robertson.
Among the 53 drivers who lost their licence were cabbies with convictions for sexual assault and dangerous driving, and one driver who “victimized members of the public.”
Even when the city and the tribunal agree that a driver shouldn’t be on the road, it can take years to pull their licences. In 2012, the tribunal took Mohammad Younas Choudhry off the road, seven years after he was convicted of sexually assaulting an intellectually challenged girl in his cab and four years after the city became aware of his 2005 conviction.
Choudhry had been entrusted to regularly drive the 13-year-old with the mental capacity of a 5-year-old to school. He was arrested in May 2000 after two men sitting in a moving truck witnessed Choudhry placing the girl’s hand on his exposed penis, according to details of his failed appeal of his conviction in Ontario Superior Court.
Choudhry testified that the girl was in the back seat but took off her seatbelt and “unexpectedly” moved to the front seat, where he buckled her in for her own safety.
Choudhry alleged the two men and the truck driver were upset after he cut them off, had hurled a racial slur at him and plotted to falsely accuse him. A judge rejected this, noting that a Superior Court judge had detected holes in the men’s story but still found them credible.
Choudhry was handed a conditional sentence of six months and given two years’ probation, according to court documents.
During his tribunal hearing, Choudhry described his work as a volunteer and his struggles as a recent widower — the tribunal heard his wife was murdered in Pakistan — and sole provider for five children.
He apologized to the girl and her family, saying he was “ashamed” and wanted a “second chance.” His lawyer called on the testimony of a sexologist, who said in his opinion the “risk of (Choudhry) reoffending was low.”
When reached at his home, Choudhry didn’t want to speak about the matter. He agreed to meet with the Star and said to contact his lawyer, who declined to comment or arrange a meeting.
The city first became aware of Choudhry’s 2005 conviction in 2008, when a police officer who had stopped Choudhry for a traffic violation looked up his record and contacted the city.
According to licensing chief Robertson, the city started a file on Choudhry and informed him he was being investigated and would face a tribunal hearing.
But Robertson said he could find “no specific reason” why his hearing didn’t take place until 2011.
“Staff should, and normally do, deal with issues of this nature expediently,” Robertson told the Star. “It was a serious matter and should have been dealt with in a much more timely fashion.”
Choudhry continued to pick up fares leading up to his tribunal hearing in October 2011, as is the right of any driver awaiting a hearing.
The hearing was adjourned and Choudhry was required to post a warning in the taxi he was driving that he was not allowed to carry passengers younger than 14. The tribunal later learned he hid the warning from public view. He was ordered to turn in his licence in March 2012. At the time, he was driving a Maple taxi; Maple told the Star the company does not run criminal background checks.
The Star’s analysis showed that a handful of the drivers appeared at the tribunal for minor reasons, such as failing to update a training course or paying fines. Of the nearly 340 cases, two-thirds of the drivers had Highway Traffic Act convictions and one-third had criminal convictions.
Tribunal chair Lionel Miskin, a lawyer, said in his experience the tribunal process is effective and drivers rarely reappear before the tribunal for new crimes or for breaching their conditions.
Miskin said the city licensing department tends to err on the side of caution when it comes to licence refusal, adding that the tribunal is charged with ensuring drivers who do not pose a threat to the public can keep their jobs.
“The tribunal is not a criminal court. You have been convicted, you have been punished. It is not the role of the tribunal to punish people,” he said. “It is our function to protect the public and the public interest.”
Protecting the public includes drivers and their families, said Miskin. That means examining convictions to determine if someone is enough of a risk to lose their livelihood, he said.
Cab drivers are not employees but rather independent operators who have a licence to drive a taxi. They don’t work for the cab companies but rather for plate and car owners who have a business agreement with a particular brokerage. Only drivers with ambassador licences are the sole operators of their vehicle.
In many cases, third-party agents hire the drivers and give them access to a car and the dispatch system of the company with which the agent has an agreement.
Because they don’t hire their drivers directly, some taxi companies take extra precautions when it comes to who drives using their company name and dispatch system.
Royal Taxi general manager Spiros Bastos said the company has run regular criminal background checks on drivers for the past five years, and does not take on drivers with criminal records.
“We’re going to make sure you are safe when you go home,” said Bastos.
If drivers are charged or convicted while operating under the Royal banner, they use in-house guidelines to determine if the driver can stay.
Other companies, such as Beck and Diamond, don’t require additional background checks. Co-op drivers must provide a criminal background check and driving record before they can log on to the company dispatch system.
Lori Slaunwhite is wary of getting into taxis these days after her experience with Koranteng. She always checks to make sure the door will open from the inside and scans the driver’s face to see if it matches the photo identification hanging on the back seat — “just little things” to feel safer.
“I would never get into a stranger’s car,” said Slaunwhite, adding that passengers trust that “somebody is monitoring the safety of citizens.”
Data analysis by Andrew Bailey.
*Emily Mathieu can be reached at **firstname.lastname@example.org **or 416-869-4896. *
Mary Ormsby can be reached at mormsby@thestar