TAMPA — A libertarian law firm announced it is filing a lawsuit on behalf of a local limousine company, challenging a Hillsborough County rule requiring limos to charge at least $50 per ride.
The Institute for Justice, headquartered in Arlington, Va., plans to file the lawsuit in Circuit Court today against the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission, which regulates limousines, taxis, ambulances and other vehicles for hire.
The plaintiffs in the case are Thomas Halsnik, owner of Black Pearl Limousines, and two limousine customers, Kenrick Gleckler and Daniel Faubion.
Justin Pearson, executive director of the institute’s Florida chapter, said the $50 minimum rule was put in place to protect established taxi and limousine companies. If the rule were not in place, Pearson said, competitively priced limousines could take fares away from cab companies.
“That’s why taxi companies love it _ because it protects taxi companies,” Pearson said Tuesday. “Large taxi and limousine companies have divvied up customers.”
The lawsuit will allege the Public Transportation Commission is violating the plaintiffs’ due process rights by denying drivers and limousine owners the right to make a living, as well as infringing on the rights of customers to bargain for lower prices.
Further, the PTC rule violates the plaintiffs’ equal protection rights, the institute claims, by imposing a minimum fare on limousines but not on taxi cabs or luxury sedans for hire.
Pearson said the Florida Legislature gave the transportation commission the right to set limousine fares in 2001. The minimum fare started at $40 and later increased to $50.
The rule was put in place with the approval of the taxi and limo companies, said Dave Shaw, president of the West Florida Livery Association, which represents mostly limousines, but also some cab companies. Shaw said the intent was to put some “separation” between cabs and limousines.
“We wanted to have minimum charges so there wouldn’t be any issues where limousines were charging the same amount as taxi cabs,” Shaw said. “The (limousine) industry liked that because we wanted to be classified as a luxury vehicle.
Shaw said the PTC adjusted the minimum fare up to $50 because “the taxi meters kept going up and getting closer to us.”
In return for the minimum $50 fare, Shaw said, customers are getting a limousine that carries commercial insurance and that has been inspected for safety by the Public Transportation Commission. Limousine drivers in Hillsborough must be licensed and free of felony convictions, he said.
“When there is no regulation, people try to operate as cheap as they can and for that reason there are issues,” Shaw said.
Halsnik, the plaintiff who owns Black Pearl Limousines, said his lawyers asked him not to comment Tuesday. He and lawyers with the Institute for Justice are holding a press conference today at 10:30 a.m. at the George E. Edgecomb Courthouse in Tampa.
The lawsuit could become a moot issue if the transportation commission decides the minimum fare rule is obsolete. PTC Chairman Victor Crist said he wants the commission to look at the minimum limousine fare and other agency rules to see if they are still justified.
But the rule was put in place long before Crist joined the PTC in 2008. Any changes would likely face push back by cab and limousine companies.
“What I’ve been told by staff is it was put in place to define the two industries _ cabs and limos _ because there were turf battles between the two in previous years,” Crist said. “At this juncture it may be premature to challenge it because it may be a rule we’re willing to reconsider.”
Pearson said if the PTC drops the rule, the institute will drop the lawsuit.
The Institute for Justice bills itself as a public interest law firm that advocates for economic liberty. Claudia Murray Edenfield, an attorney at the institute, said it represents, free of charge, small business people who feel victimized by intrusive government regulations.