Last November, taxicab driver Joe Ciprian, 50, took a call from his dispatcher to pick up a passenger at UCSD hospital in Hillcrest. “I got there to find the security guard waving me down,” wrote Ciprian, who is in the habit of documenting noteworthy incidents he witnesses or experiences while on the job. “This was unusual, but I figured it sure beat illegally parking to find the passenger. The security guard escorted the man…to my cab and put him in the back seat.” Ciprian described the passenger as “disheveled” and in his 50s.
“I was told to drive him to Paradise Valley Hospital in National City. I have never been stiffed on a hospital call, so I wasn’t worried. Upon arrival…the passenger said we would go in and get a voucher for my payment [about $30].” Vouchers are used by hospitals to pay cabdrivers, usually to bring patients to the hospital but sometimes to take them home or transfer them to other institutions.
But this time, Paradise Valley Hospital refused to pay. “They said the patient was already seen at UCSD,” wrote Ciprian, “and that he couldn’t hospital jump. I wanted my $30. They told me to go back to UCSD and get it because UCSD is the one who ‘patient dumped.’”
The driver figured he’d be better off reasoning with the passenger until Paradise Valley personnel said the man was a “psyche patient.” So Ciprian called 911 and “got an earful about the proper calls for 911.” But eventually two National City police officers came and “told me right off that this is just like [someone] not paying their rent — a civil matter. I argued that it was more like shoplifting and theft. They said they would write down the man’s name and I could sue him in small claims,” wrote Ciprian.
Were the police officers shirking their duty? Or unsure of what to do? In 2010, in a post to the website Officer.com, a cop in an unspecified location asked how he should have handled “my first call as a solo officer.” He had been called to respond to a case of “skipping out on taxi cab fare.” “Fortunately we were able to broker a deal between [the passenger] and a neighbor to get the fare, but I was trying to work out what the charge would have been. I’ve scoured the code and have not found anything.… The veteran officer who backed me up on the call didn’t know either.”
The post received a variety of answers, including “theft of services,” “breach of trust,” “petit larceny,” and “defrauding an innkeeper.” The California Penal Code describes these crimes but does not specify any of them as including refusal to pay a taxi fare.
I called the National City Police Department to ask how they view such cases. According to spokeswoman Jeannette Silva, it is a misdemeanor to run away from a cab without paying the fare. To my objection that apprehending the culprit would be like finding a needle in a haystack, she replied, “You’d be surprised. We sometimes catch them.” However, if offenders stay on-site, said Silva, the only recourse is for the cabdriver to take them to small claims court. Judges can charge them with misdemeanors if they don’t show up for the hearing.
No wonder many cabdrivers chalk up failures to pay as part of doing business.
But last November, Joe Ciprian didn’t give up. He went back to UCSD hospital. “I was told by the head of security that I was ‘played,’” he wrote. “I was also told by two administrators that if they did compensate me then [they would be admitting to] ‘patient dumping.’ The old catch-22.… When I finally stopped pursuing this matter my meter was at $82.”
In early March, I sat in Ciprian’s cab listening to his frustrations. He had gone back to UCSD one last time to get their final version of events. Hospital personnel, he told me, “explained that the man who became my passenger that day had signed in at the emergency room window, but while waiting, he began making a ruckus. So they convinced him to sign a release, and that’s when he left.”
I later called the hospital, and a spokeswoman told me that emergency room records showed the man was not seen as a patient on the day in question.
Ciprian told me that eventually “a very nice lady” at UCSD gave him two $15 gas cards. “But it’s what it took out of that day,” he said. “It would be an even bigger waste of time if I try to collect money from a psyche patient in small claims court.”
Some might question why anyone would make a big deal of such a minor plight. But to Ciprian, who estimates he makes $11,000 a year, $82 comes to almost 39 percent of his weekly profit after gas and a $480 lease to Red Cab.
Ciprian has had worse days. He once lost a $380 fare for driving a pregnant woman to Los Angeles. She wrote him a bad check. Why not ask for the money up front? “If you do that,” said Ciprian, “you’re telling the people at the start of the relationship that you don’t trust them.”
Do the police care about the guy “at the bottom of the food chain?” Ciprian wonders. In transit about five years ago, a passenger put a gun to the back of Ciprian’s head in a demand for money. To show he meant business, the crook fired once through the roof of the cab. But Ciprian sped up, hitting 60 miles an hour going down Sixth Avenue. When he spotted a cop, he slowed to 20, and the robber rolled out the back door. “Frantically,” according to Ciprian, “I tried to report it to the cop. He said, ‘Can’t you see I’m busy?’”