When you get into a Wichita taxicab, you face about a 1-in-10 chance of being driven by someone with a felony criminal record.
Fifteen of 131 people licensed to drive taxis in Wichita have been convicted of felonies, according to a check by The Eagle. That’s 11.4 percent of the taxi drivers.
Their crimes include first-degree murder, a fourth DUI, voluntary manslaughter and aggravated sodomy. The man with the murder conviction isn’t driving a taxi anymore; he died in July.
Under the Wichita ordinance regulating taxi drivers, people can get taxi licenses if their felony convictions occurred more than five years before their license application or if their sex crimes occurred before the sex offender registry went into effect.
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Some of the convictions occurred decades ago. But the city says it has twice granted taxi licenses when it shouldn’t have since late 2012.
The five-year window on felonies is the national norm, said Alfred LaGasse, CEO of the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association. The crimes that might disqualify an applicant vary from city to city. The Wichita ordinance’s banning anyone who has ever been on a sex offender registry indicates that the city has more sensitivity to that kind of crime, LaGasse said.
City finance manager Rob Raine, who oversees the taxi driver license process, said the city recently began an “exhaustive review” of the process after an oversight that allowed a registered sex offender to get a taxi license. The taxi driver was later convicted of raping a passenger.
“The review is triggered by the opportunity to improve the process,” Raine said.
Last week, The Eagle reported that the taxi driver convicted of the rape, Bryon Scott Spohn, should not have been allowed to operate a taxi because at the time he applied for a taxi license in late 2012, he was on a state sex offender registry for possession of child pornography. A city ordinance that went into effect earlier in 2012 says a taxi license shall not be issued to anyone who has ever been registered as a sexual offender.
Spohn got his license because the change banning registered sex offenders wasn’t communicated to police staff doing background checks, city officials told The Eagle. The officials said the problem that led to the oversight has been fixed.
Spohn’s criminal history is a key issue in a lawsuit that the rape victim filed last month. The lawsuit – against Spohn and ABC Taxi Cab – said the business “knew or should have known by virtue of Spohn’s criminal history that he was unfit for the position of a cab driver and presented an undue risk of harm.”
Drivers with felonies
After the lawsuit was filed and the city admitted that an error had occurred with Spohn’s background check, The Eagle obtained a list of the currently licensed taxi drivers.
A check of the Kansas Department of Corrections website showed that 15 of the 131 licensed drivers have been convicted of felonies. The Eagle checked only the state site, which captures statewide criminal records that can be easily matched to dates of birth and other identifying information on the taxi license applications. This would not include convictions from other states or in the federal court system.
Convictions included first-degree murder, a fourth DUI, voluntary manslaughter, aggravated sodomy, aggravated assault, robbery in the second degree, aggravated battery, criminal threat, drug possession, mistreatment of a dependent adult, criminal damage to property, forgery and giving a worthless check.
Ronald J. Penner, one of those on the current list of licensed drivers, was convicted of first-degree murder in 1987. At his trial, Penner, then 41, told a jury that he shot his friend, 35-year-old David Carnahan, 13 times after a brief scuffle that began when he tried to baptize Carnahan. Penner said in his trial testimony that he was drunk at the time.
Penner, 67, died in July after a period of declining health. He began driving for ABC Taxi in 2007, never for more than two days a week, said ABC’s attorney, Craig Robinson.
Penner was known in the religious community as someone who preached the gospel, and he was “highly regarded by those people,” Robinson said. Penner’s co-workers at ABC described him as a “godly man,” Robinson said.
Penner is an example of how someone with the most serious kind of conviction can be reformed and productive, he said.
Another taxi driver on the list of current licensees had a fourth DUI conviction on Dec. 22, 2008, court records show. The driver, now 39, also had a 2005 DUI conviction, a 2005 conviction for fleeing or attempting to elude an officer, a 1998 DUI conviction and a 1996 DUI conviction – all in Wichita, court records show.
According to his taxi license application on Aug. 19, 2013, he checked “yes” each time when asked whether he had been convicted of traffic violations, whether he had a felony conviction and whether he had a DUI within five years of the application date. Under city ordinance, the application should have been rejected because he was applying within five years of his felony DUI conviction.
The city said in a written statement that the man’s application should have been denied. “However, the driver now meets the licensing criteria,” the statement said.
Tim Armbrust, manager of Best Cabs, confirmed that the man drives for Best and passed a background check by the city. Since the man’s last DUI conviction, Armbrust said, “Obviously, he’s been good for five years, so obviously that should say something about (him). I don’t have complaints on him.”
The spokesmen for Best and ABC say applicants and drivers undergo drug screening and random urine tests.
A second licensed driver had Sedgwick County convictions in 1990 for two counts of aggravated sodomy. The driver, now 50, wouldn’t have appeared on a sex offender registry because in Kansas, anyone convicted before April 14, 1994, is not required to register. His sentence expired in 2000.
He has been driving for ABC since 2012, said Robinson, the ABC attorney.
A third driver has a 1981 conviction for voluntary manslaughter. His sentence expired in October 2001. According to newspaper articles, the 19-year-old was charged in a shooting that killed another 19-year-old. The victim was shot once in the back of the neck as he drove on South Broadway early one Sunday.
The man, now 52, has been driving for ABC since 2009, Robinson said.
Robinson noted that the men’s convictions occurred decades ago. He said they, as with other drivers, have to re-apply annually for their taxi licenses and that they have to comply with any licensing requirements the city might add.
Taxi driver isn’t the only occupation for which the city does criminal background checks. The list covers 25 types of enterprises, including the alarm business, adult entertainment, clairvoyants, cultural market, escorts, farmers market license, haunted house, limousine driver and pawnbroker.
Cab operators’ exceptions
Armbrust, of Best Cabs, says he won’t use drivers with certain criminal records.
The “biggest problem I have is with a sex offender,” he said.
That’s because Best regularly takes children to school, especially during cold weather. In some cases, children ride alone; in other cases, parents ride with their children. The company’s taxis also transport children to doctor’s appointments.
“So, once again, I don’t want to have any (sex offender) in my cab whether the city passed them or not,” Armbrust said.
Best also serves medical patients who are vulnerable and wouldn’t be able to defend themselves, he said.
So, Armbrust said, he has “100 percent drawn the line at sex offenders and more or less all violent offenses.”
Best checks an applicant’s background over a two-week period when the city is processing the application, he said.
Armbrust said he doesn’t think it would be fair to ban all felons from driving a taxi.
In a statement, the city said there has to be a balancing of factors. Cities “only have limited power to regulate occupations for the public benefit,” the statement said. “Municipalities can deny or withdraw such a license only if the reason for doing so is rationally related to the public safety.
“Whether the prohibition should be for the person’s lifetime or for a certain amount of years following a criminal conviction requires policy makers to balance many factors, including the person’s ability to seek gainful employment, the nature of the crime committed by the person and the safety of the community at large.”