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October 15, 2002 - Convicted drunk drivers among city's cab drivers

Despite seven convictions on his record, including a charge of operating a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol, Michael S. Marvin drives taxi for Badger Cab Taxi Co. and is one of numerous Madison cabbies with similar convictions. But despite his record, Tom Royston, manager of Badger Cab Taxi Co., is confident his 55-year-old employee is harmless and not a threat to taxi passengers. "We all make mistakes," Royston said.

However, UW senior Angie Olson said students unfairly bear the risks the cab owners take by putting cabbies with criminal records behind the wheel. "That really scares me, because you trust someone with your safety in their cab," she said. "It's scary when you're in a cab by yourself with someone who might not be responsible enough to drive you and may not be a safe person to be around. That's a lot of responsibility you are putting into their hands." But Richard Nesvacil, general manager of Madison Taxi, said the taxi drivers with criminal convictions deserve another chance.

"If you have made one mistake, do you pay for it the rest of your life?" Nescavil said. Like his counterpart Royson, Nescavil hired Donald M. Connery, a Madison taxi driver who has been convicted of three OWIs, the most recent of which was in 1999. Nescavil said Connery deserves another chance. "Donald has paid wholeheartedly, monetarily, personally . . . he's 70, he's a good driver, works six days a week," Nescavil said. Royston said police conduct an extensive background check of taxicab-driver permit applicants. "Police do a thorough job," Royston said. "People have to get through a rigorous screening process." However, despite this process, a significant number of employees working for Madison taxi companies have been convicted of drunk driving offenses in the past, despite a city ordinance that prohibits the city from doling out taxi driver permits to those with OWI convictions on their record. Barry Haley, an employee for Union Cab, was twice convicted of OWI, most recently in 1997, meaning Madison's three major cab companies enact similar policies.

Ordinance 11.06, section 6b, 2 states of taxicab driver permits that: "such permit shall not be granted . . . to any person who has been convicted by a court of competent jurisdiction, or has charges pending against her or him, of any offense the circumstances of which substantially relate to the circumstances of taxicab or other public passenger vehicle operation. "Such offenses include, but are not limited to, crimes against persons or property or driving a vehicle while under the influence of intoxicants or controlled substances."

Assistant Madison district attorney Lara Mainella believes the ordinance's intent is clear. "[11.06, sec. 6b,2] does say a license shall not be granted at the time a license is considered if a person has been convicted or pending charges of drunk driving," she said. Mainella said if cab companies employ convicted drunk drivers they would be in direct defiance of the ordinance. "This ordinance, as it's written, says for a person who has an OWI, it doesn't sound like they can receive a permit," Mainella said.

The Madison Police Department is the ultimate authority in approving or rejecting a taxi driver permit. A representative could not be reached for comment. Section 349.24 of the Wisconsin state statutes gives a city government the authority to suspend the permit of a current taxi driver: "The council of any city may ? revoke any license mentioned in this section when in its judgment the public safety so requires." But, Mainella pointed out the great deal of hassle involved in stripping a cabbie of his permit once. "It's very difficult for the city to take away a license that has already been granted, rather than one that has not yet been approved," Mainella said. Those applying for driver permits apply to the cab company itself, which then forwards the application to the Madison Police Department. Nesvacil said the MPD conducts background checks of the applicant with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Kurt Schneider, an employee of Badger Cab, said Badger Cab is cautious and sensitive in its evaluation of driver applicants. "It is a case-by-case basis. If someone looks like a time-bomb set to go off, we don't hire them," Schneider said. He added that Badger Cab subjects its employees to random breathalyzer and drug tests. Above all, Royston emphasized his confidence in his company and the city's ability to screen individuals applying for driving permits who might endanger passengers, in spite of the presence of convicted drunk drivers in city taxis. "Cab companies and police work hand-in-hand, and one can feel safe in hands of any drivers in a cab in the city of Madison," Royston said.

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