NASHVILLE -- Last fall, The Huffington Post reported that the city of Nashville had begun to push new regulations that were driven by big limo companies and aimed at squashing independent competition. The small car companies fought back, filing a lawsuit to overturn the new requirements.
That's when it got ugly.
Drivers allege that after the lawsuit was filed, city inspectors, working on behalf of the Nashville Transportation Licensing Commission, began targeting independent operators by pulling their cars over and issuing citations -- even when presented with the legal documents in question -- and harassing off-duty drivers in their personal vehicles. During these stops, inspectors wore badges identifying themselves as members of the Nashville Police, according to a former TLC inspector and exclusively confirmed to HuffPost by Kris Mumford, spokeswoman for the Metro Nashville Police Department after months of queries. According to the former inspector, the police impostors also improperly used badges, sirens and flashing lights.
Under Tennessee law, impersonating a police officer for the purpose of "causing another to believe that the person is a law enforcement officer" constitutes a Class A misdemeanor, which can carry a penalty of up to 11 months in jail, fines of up to $2,500 or both.
"It just came to my attention on Tuesday that one of our officers actually saw an inspector wearing a badge that said 'Inspector' but also said 'Nashville Police.' Metro is not aware of exactly when or how they got those badges, but they were not authorized by Chief Steve Anderson," Mumford told HuffPost. According to Mumford, the police have confiscated seven badges that identified TLC inspectors as members of Metro Police or Nashville Police.
According to the former inspector, who resigned in late 2011 and wishes to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation, the commission had been making ample use of the spurious badges. TLC workers would conduct stakeouts in unmarked vehicles and use blue lights -- permitted only for official police vehicles -- to make traffic stops, the former inspector said. Undercover inspectors would specifically target smaller, independent private car services and give them specious citations, the former inspector said.
TLC Director Brian McQuistion admits his department used the badges and blue lights to pull people over, but maintains the practice stopped when he realized they weren't allowed to. Inspectors' use of these badges, however, continued until just a few days ago, when the police chief requested the badges' return.
McQuistion says that his department has carried the police badges for the past 35 years but won't do so any longer. "They were given to the department's inspectors decades ago for use by the police -- I guess they were given [by] police commissions. We didn't know we weren't supposed to be using them anymore, so [when the police asked for them,] we turned them in," said McQuistion.
Mumford said the police department is still looking into the circumstances that allowed the TLC to obtain the seven badges. "If they were commissioned by the police department, it would be on a year-to-year basis and most likely would have expired by now. Chief Steve Anderson has been here for 36 years, and he is certain they have not been commissioned in recent years," she said.
Mumford added that she is unaware of any badges ever being issued by special commission to non-police agents.
McQuistion refused to comment on the allegations by livery companies when HuffPost contacted him in January. He now says he refused to comment because he wanted to determine if there was a problem with the TLC's use of these badges. "After my conversation with [HuffPost] about job descriptions and if we had police commissions, I requested to the chief then to get police commissions, and I didn’t hear back from him until Tuesday [April 3,] when he contacted us wanting the badges back."
Ali Bokhari, owner of Metro Livery and one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said TLC officials have pulled his drivers over to issue false citations. "After they passed the regulations, they targeted my business for selective enforcement ... because a lot of the high-end clients [of the major taxi companies] were switching to our services," he said.
On January 27, eight days after the city's motion to dismiss the court case, the TLC ran an undercover sting operation against Metro Livery, in which the former chief of police for Lavergne, Tenn., worked as an undercover agent to persuade one of Bokhari's drivers to charge less than the minimum fare required under the new laws.
Because of the sting operation, Metro Livery now faces having its permit revoked, and the driver faces the loss of his license. Independent drivers fear more than ever that TLC officials are retaliating against the companies who instigated the lawsuit.
The commission will continue to issue citations, said McQuistion, pulling over livery vehicles and carrying out inspections with or without badges. "There's another avenue for us: We still have the authority to do what we do, but we will have to go through the Civil Service Commission to get the job descriptions changed so we no longer have to have police commissions. We still have the right to do what we're doing by charter."
When asked if the TLC faced investigation by the police, Mumford said, "We don't have any jurisdiction over them. So I don't know if they're under investigation."
Susan Niland, communications director at the Davidson County District Attorney General's Office said that at this time, her office has not received any criminal complaints or requests to investigate the TLC.
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