Local police descended on several heavily traveled areas yesterday, stopping more than 1,200 D.C. taxi drivers, issuing about 110 tickets for as much as $500 and impounding more than 40 cabs in a crackdown on illegal cabdrivers and unsafe taxis.
Armed with walkie-talkies, pink traffic tickets and orange tow stickers, D.C. and U.S. Park Police set up six checkpoints in the District and Virginia, stopping as many D.C. cabdrivers as they could and asking them to produce their hackers' licenses. Authorities said that Operation Face Lift One, named for the mandatory hacker identification card known as a face, was the first of a planned series of coordinated crackdowns. The hacker's face is supposed to be displayed on the visor.
If hackers were legal and produced the proper paperwork, they were on their way within a few minutes. If not, they were ordered to pull to the side of the road and leave the cabs, which were then towed. Their passengers were transferred to legal taxis.
Forday Massaquoi, who was fined $1,000 because he did not have a hacker's license and whose car was being used illegally as a cab, was quick to brag to police that he had evaded their detection for more than three years.
"I am out here every day and you never stop me," he told Officer Stephen Gately. "I need to make a living. I drive cab. I don't do crimes."
Gately told him, "While that may be good for your personal self, there is the little matter of passing a test. Because you didn't pass the test and you are driving a cab, you are entitled to these two tickets."
Massaquoi and other cabdrivers said they would operate as legal cabbies if the city's hacker's test weren't so difficult. He said he had failed it several times.
Other cabdrivers lost their cars because police decided they were unsafe to drive. Emmanuel Boateng had all the proper papers when police stopped him as he drove his battered cab into Union Station during the morning rush hour.
D.C. Cab Commission Chairman Arrington Dixon, who along with other commission members originated the idea of the crackdown, arrived at the checkpoint as Boateng explained to police he was hit by another car on July 2 but had not had time to have the damage appraised by an insurance company.
"This is absolutely embarrassing," Dixon said as he examined the broken headlight and crumpled fender of the cab. "I may take this too personally, but I get insulted when I see a cab like this in service."
Boateng, who said he had driven a cab for more than six years, ended up with a ticket and no car.
"It is not nice what they do," said Boateng. "It is unfair. You take my cab and I can make no money." He watched as his Dupont cab was towed away, shrugged his shoulders and walked off toward the Capitol.
Many of the cab companies in town -- Yellow, Tri-State, D.C. Express, Diamond, Presidential, Highland and Liberty among others -- had illegal drivers behind the wheel. Some drivers succeeded in evading the police checkpoints by driving the wrong way on one-way streets while others tried to slip their "off duty" signs into place before police stopped them. Legal taxi drivers didn't seem to mind the interruption and some were even appreciative of the police checks.
"I think this is a very good idea," said James Watkins as he watched police ticket drivers at 18th and I streets NW. "These illegal drivers are knocking me out of money. And they overcharge customers who end up giving me a hard time. These unlicensed people don't give a damn."
But the illegal drivers, shocked and angry to be slapped $500 fines and a $50 impoundment fee, had their excuses.
"I'm not working," said a woman, a native of Ghana, behind the wheel of a Presidential cab. "My husband is a cabdriver."
"I'm from Iran, I'm here on political asylum," said Roza Barati, who was driving a D.C. Express cab without a license. "Getting a Washington license is very difficult."
Ahmad Mahmood, a Pakistani who lives in Alexandria, said he was "not working" but was on his way to the post office.
Another cabdriver, caught without a license, put an "Off Duty" sign in his window and tried to avoid the whole thing. It didn't work.
"They usually know that what they've been doing is wrong and that they are taking their chances being out here," said Steve Platt, a city hack inspector at a checkpoint at 19th and E streets NW.
Platt said the $500 fine had been in effect since July 3. The old fine was $50, which he said the taxi commission decided wasn't high enough to discourage illegal hackers.
Some cabdrivers accepted a ticket without rancor; some got hostile. Some, such as Barati, tried to argue their way out of the citation.
"I'm busy, I've explained everything to you," said Platt, backing away from the irate driver. "There's nothing you can say. Do you understand English? I'm not talking to you."
Some drivers said they would pay the fine and keep pressuring the taxi commission to come up with an easier test for hackers.
Massaquoi, native of Sierra Leone, and eight other drivers had retrieved their cabs from the police impoundment lot in Northeast Washington by late yesterday. Massaquoi paid his $50 towing fee but said he would hire a lawyer and appeal his two $500 tickets.
"I took the exam more than three times. I don't pass," he said with a trace of exasperation.
One impoundment official listened to Massaquoi, and said he was sympathetic to his need to find work but also was concerned about the safety of his customers.
One police official said the intent of the crackdown was to force the illegal drivers to get their licenses, not to put them out of work.
But Ahmad Mahmood, eying his $500 ticket, said he had had enough.
"Next week I move to New Jersey to work at the 7-Eleven."