TAMPA — The simmering feud between the agency that regulates cab and limousine services in Hillsborough County and a handful of upstart ride-sharing companies escalated Thursday when a Lyft driver refused to take a plea on a misdemeanor of driving a taxi without a license and demanded a jury trial.
Farhad Kazemi, 42, rejected a misdemeanor intervention program that could have resulted in a dismissal of the charges and said he wanted his case heard by a jury. Hillsborough County Judge Lawrence Lefler set a trial date of Oct. 20.
Another Lyft driver, Darrell Rogers, was scheduled to appear in court Thursday on similar charges but failed to appear. Lefler issued a warrant for his arrest.
The two are the first of nearly two dozen cases made by local transportation inspectors over the past two weeks that now are wending their way through county court. The court cases began after the Public Transportation Commission, which has been locked in a dispute with Uber and Lyft over what level of regulation the ride-sharing services should be subject to, set up an operation to cite the drivers.
“I guess it was a sting,” Public Transportation Commission Executive Director Kyle Cockream said of the operation that netted Kazemi and other ride-sharing drivers. “That’s the closest thing to describe it.”
Two weeks ago, Kazemi was charged with operating a public vehicle without a certificate, failing to maintain the proper level of insurance and operating a vehicle without a public driver’s license. The charges total $700 in fines, he said, and as second-degree misdemeanors, carry a maximum of 60 days in jail.
“I was set up,” Kazemi said after his brief court hearing Thursday afternoon.
He said he received a call for a ride from a woman at Jackson’s Bistro on Harbour Island. When he showed up in his personal car, two inspectors with the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission approached him.
“They ambushed me,” Kazemi said. The woman, he said, “just walked away.”
Kazemi said he was handed the citations and notice to appear but was not booked into the county jail.
The citations have not stopped Kazemi; he said he has continued to offer rides for Lyft customers and will continue to give rides around Tampa through the service.
He said Lyft had offered to pay the fines, but he refused the offer, opting for the jury trial.
“We are not a cab,” he said. “We are not a transportation company. Lyft is a platform and I’m an independent contractor.”
Fares, he said, are done through smart phone apps and he takes no money from customers. The fares are considered donations, he said. Customers can pay all of the suggested fare or part of it, or none of it at all.
He said ride-sharing services are poised to take on the cab industry.
“The time has come for this service,” he said. “The taxis have refused to change, to provide this service. Plus, they overcharge.”
The charges come at a time when Uber and Lyft are trying to negotiate terms with the transportation commission under which they can legally operate, Cockream said.
“We have an understanding,” he said. “They know I will continue to enforce the existing laws against any violators. They know that, and (Kazemi and Rogers) were part of that enforcement.”
Uber and Lyft drivers need to apply for and receive a commission license to offer rides legally to customers, he said.
“We have made it abundantly clear to both Uber and Lyft,” Cockream said, “that their drivers need to come by and get a license.”
Unlicensed ride-sharing drivers risk jail and fines, he said.
“We’ve asked those companies to make their drivers aware of that,” Cockream said. “Whether they have or not, I don’t know.”
The commission’s objective, he said, is to make sure anyone offering rides for money in the county be cleared in a background check and be safe behind the wheel.
Uber spokesman Taylor Bennett on Thursday afternoon issued this statement: “It’s disturbing when law enforcement abuses their power to pick one small business owner over another. Any attempt to restrict consumer choice and limit opportunity only hurts the people of Tampa. We will stand up for our driver partners against police intimidation tactics and cover any legal or financial costs associated with unjust citations.
“Despite any citations or arrests in Tampa,” he said, “Uber has no plans to pull its drivers off the road here.”
Ride-sharing companies like Uber, Lyft and SideCar have caused a stir in the traditional taxi marketplace by offering a different model for paid transportation.
People who want to make extra cash can sign up and if they pass those companies’ background checks and vehicle requirements, they can start offering rides using their own vehicles. Passengers in turn download an app on their smart phone that allows them to register a credit card and request a pickup.
The model side-steps the established rules set by the county transportation commission, which regulates and hands out licenses to drivers of taxis, limos and tow trucks and private medical transport services.
The commission’s executives are continuing to negotiate with the ride-sharing businesses over ways to help them operate legitimately, and many of the key issues, including more thorough background checks, commercial insurance, vehicle inspections and whether the commission can impose pre-determined rates on rides, have been worked out.
Tribune reporter Richard Mullins contributed to this report.