Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

The lawyer who would challenge D.C.'s ignored taxicab rules

May 18, 2012 - 09:45 AM
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(Photo: John Hendel)

The post headline came to 30-year-old Daniel Hornal while he was in the shower: I want to clean up the DC cab industry, and I need your help. It'll be fun and maybe profitable! (details inside). Perfect, direct, visceral ... exactly what would stir the readers of social network Reddit's D.C. community. Within two days, his May 16 Reddit post received more than 140 comments and nearly 200 endorsements from network users. Many cheered the Seattle native on. Hornal graduated from Georgetown's law school a year ago, and in the months since, zeroed in on a peculiar problem with the District's taxicab industry that he has noticed since moving here a little over four years ago.

"I've been out with people who have been refused cab after cab," Hornal told me over coffee at Chinatown Coffee Company, blocks from where he lives, yesterday morning. "It's very difficult to get a cab to Northeast [D.C.] and even worse to Southeast."

Cabs will, according to Hornal and other accounts in recent years, happily accept passengers if they're going to popular, central destinations like Dupont Circle but may be less inclined to transport passengers to certain neighborhoods. Hornal takes a taxicab perhaps once a month, normally sticking to his motorcycle and bikes, but from talking to his friends, he says he always knew something was wrong. He's right. "The people of Ward 4 can't get a cab," Councilmember Muriel Bowser told D.C. Taxicab Commission Chairman Ron Linton at a January hearing. She said they couldn't receive service by appointment or by hailing and that it was common knowledge — and a major unacceptable problem among many unacceptable problems our taxi industry of 8,000 drivers is mired in. Yesterday D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh acknowledged "underserved" areas of the District from "unreliable" taxicabs as she and fellow councilmembers discussed proposed modernization legislation, which would kick off a study on how to better serve the neighborhoods Hornal refers to.

But Hornal doesn't want to wait for any studies. He's hoping to help carve out a legal solution and advocate for the District's passengers.

Chocolate strawberries
Daniel Hornal.(Photo: John Hendel)

In his legal studies, Hornal focused on consumer protection law. Unlike many states, D.C.'s generous consumer protection laws yield $1,500 per violation as well as attorney's fees in broad legislation that applies to the D.C. taxicab industry. He observed the taxicab problems and began "tracing it backwards from the harm."

"D.C.'s got all these great laws — no one's enforcing them," Hornal said. "I went to law school to do public interest, and I kept my idealism."

In the year since graduation, he assisted with a law professor, passed the bar, and decided to open his own firm. And after diving through the District's code, he hopes to advocate for the city's taxicab passengers and those renters subject to any deceptive landlord practices. He's belonged to Reddit for five years, so posting his intentions on the network seemed "very natural." He explained the proposal to local Redditors: I want to do something about this, because DC hasn't and won't ... So, if you want to do your part help the Taxicab Commission's do the job that they refuse to do, it's pretty easy. Next time a cab or dispatcher does something shady like refuse to take you somewhere, overcharge you, whatever, write down the taxicab company's name and any other info you can get. The Equal Rights Center has also alleged that taxicab drivers discriminate against African-Americans and the blind as others question the quality of customer service. Hornal sees violations of consumer protection law that deserve attention in court and hopes to inspire institutional change by raising awareness of these cases and discouraging taxicabs and potentially landlords as well from questionable practices.

Hornal tells me he doesn't have anything against cab drivers and that he doesn't believe the majority are bad people. But the problems are well documented and too few passengers take advantage of the consumer benefits they're liable to collect. To not pick up passengers, to selectively choose, to geographically isolate communities creates a public safety problem, Hornal believes, and amounts to a fundamentally unfair mode of transportation that operates in violation to codified standards. In the course of the Reddit discussion, Hornal links to the many elements of D.C. code that drivers are alleged as violating — here in the code is, for instance, where the District outlaws discriminating based on race, gender, disability, and residence, playing the radio against a passenger's will, and asking passengers their destinations before they've entered the cab.

You can e-mail your troubled cab experiences to Hornal here. He says he's received a few messages so far but has no way of anticipating how many folks he'll hear from. He plans to reach out more in the coming weeks and is considering visiting churches, community centers, and perhaps even posting flyers as he tackles issues of housing and transportation law. The biggest challenge will be providing evidence of the taxi industry's wrongdoing in these cases but he suspects they will be easier to process than people think.

"It's not that much hassle," Hornal said. "It isn't difficult."

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