Eagle editorial: Review cab-safety rules

Wichita should review its rules to ensure that cabs are as safe as they can be.
Wichita should review its rules to ensure that cabs are as safe as they can be.

To its credit, the city of Wichita upgraded taxi licensing and enforcement in 2012 after complaints of smoky, filthy cabs and drivers wearing tank tops. But poor taste and hygiene weren’t the worst of it. Now the city should review those 2-year-old rules to ensure that Wichita’s cabs are as safe as they can be.

The Eagle’s Tim Potter reported this month that 1 in 10 licensed local cab drivers has a felony conviction in the state and that one driver, Bryon Scott Spohn, is serving a 48-sentence for raping a passenger last year. The drivers’ criminal records have included first-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter, aggravated sodomy, aggravated assault, robbery in the second degree and mistreatment of a dependent adult. Yet those serious crimes didn’t disqualify the drivers from acquiring licenses because the felony convictions occurred more than five years before the license application – a standard time period for the industry – or because, in the case of sex crimes, they predated the sex-offender registry.

But when Spohn applied for a taxi license in late 2012, he was on a state sex-offender registry for possession of child pornography – something barred by the 2012 ordinance though not communicated to police staff doing taxi-license background checks at the time. The 2004 conviction in federal court for child porn even appeared on Spohn’s license application, though the cab company’s background check didn’t mention his sex-offender status, according to the company’s attorney.

Whatever happens to a recently filed lawsuit, it’s clear that Spohn should not have been driving a cab last February when he picked up the victim, who later testified that she didn’t remember leaving an Old Town bar that night. Nor should the city have granted a license to a current driver whose August 2013 application mentioned a fourth DUI conviction in late 2008.

Residents and potential visitors alike can hope that city officials have fixed the oversight problem, and that nobody with such a criminal history could get a taxi license now. It was good to learn that at least one taxi company goes further than the city in declining to hire sex offenders and those who have committed violent crimes.

There is value in noting, as one cab company’s attorney said, that the fare that preceded the rape was one of 178,000 that company had last year, and the only one in which a licensed driver committed a person felony.

And as one Kansas.com reader commented about the 11.4 percent rate of felony convictions among the city’s 131 licensed taxi drivers: “People deserve a second chance. Would you rather have them unemployed?”

But cab drivers are relied upon by many vulnerable residents, and transport many children. They are on the front line of Wichita’s efforts to make a good impression on business travelers and convention visitors.

So further scrutiny by the city staff and City Council is appropriate. Though riding in any car carries some risk of a traffic accident, customers of Wichita’s taxi services shouldn’t have the added worry of whether they’ll be victimized by their drivers.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman