Area police arrested 50 District cabdrivers yesterday, seized 80 taxis and arrested a D.C. government employe who they believe stole about 3,000 vehicle inspection stickers, in a massive crackdown designed to stop the sale and use of the stolen stickers.

The police action, dubbed Operation Back Alley, was directed toward cabdrivers with stolen stickers and ran concurrently with Operation Face Lift, which was geared to get unlicensed cabdrivers off the street. In July, police issued 110 tickets for as much as $500 and impounded 40 cabs.

Yesterday police checked each District taxi passing through a dozen checkpoints in the District and Virginia, delaying local residents and travelers going to and coming from National Airport. But most passengers were more curious than angry when asked by police to switch cabs, the police officers sometimes carrying their luggage for them.

Several of the arrested cabdrivers seemed confused about what had happened to them, some saying they did not know what the charges against them were. Many of them lost their fares to other drivers.

Capt. William Ritchie, head of the Public Integrity Branch of the D.C. police, told reporters yesterday that D.C. police had arrested four men on warrants and searched four locations with warrants in connection with a scheme to sell stolen inspection stickers. The warrants were obtained after a 19-month investigation, police said.

However, the charges against the four were later dropped by the U.S. attorney's office, a source said.

Ritchie said that a D.C. government employe had access to the inspection stickers while working in the Bureau of Motor Vehicles' storeroom at 301 C St. NW. Police charged the man with trafficking in stolen property.

Two others were arrested and charged with trafficking in stolen property. Neither man is a government employe. A fourth man was charged with a lesser offense of receiving stolen property.

Ritchie said that only about 200 to 300 of the 3,000 stolen stickers got on the street.

At National Airport yesterday, the lines grew long as would-be passengers waited up to 30 minutes for a cab while airport police stopped each District cab to check not only for stolen stickers but also for drivers without hacker licenses. Virginia cabs were allowed to pass through without police scrutiny. Passengers often had to squeeze past a handcuffed D.C. cabdriver and his seized cab to reach a D.C. cab that had passed the inspection point or a Virginia cab.

David Preston of Waco, Tex., was one of the passengers who was delayed at the airport. "I am late for an appointment at HUD," he said. "This line usually only takes five minutes. I would think the police would have a way to speed the process up."

A cabdriver in a Five Star cab who had successfully passed the checkpoint was clearly agitated by the experience. "Never again will I come to the airport," he said as he picked up a passenger. "This is too much of a hassle."

Driver Tess Seyous was one of those arrested at the airport. When informed he had been arrested for possession of a stolen sticker, he said, "The car is not mine. I lease it. I know nothing of the inspection sticker."

At least nine of the cars seized as evidence by police were Liberty cabs. About 3 p.m., U.S. Park Police working on the Virginia side of the Memorial Bridge, had confiscated six Liberty cabs because they had inspection stickers that had been altered or appeared on the list of stolen stickers.

Liberty Cab Association President Jerry Schaeffer said he did not know how the stolen stickers got on the cabs.

"We don't inspect all the cars," he said. "The drivers take a lot of them in for inspection. You know how drivers are; they will take the easy way out."

Schaeffer, when asked about the search warrant served at his 19th Street and New York Avenue NE headquarters earlier in the day, said the search occurred before he came to work. "The police came in here and looked around. I believe they took one or two cabs."

Police also served search warrants at 20 K St. NE, at Diamond Cab Company at 3rd and M streets NE and Empire/Omni Cab Company at 1729 Bladensburg Rd. NE. Ritchie said the warrants produced some stickers and documents.

No one answered the phone at the Empire Cab Company office late yesterday afternoon, and no official was available for comment at Diamond Cab Co.

The new D.C. Taxicab Commission, which is charged with improving the District's cab service, was involved with the earlier Operation Face Lift. Chairman Arrington L. Dixon toured the checkpoints in July, pleased with the police action.

Yesterday, Dixon was not a participant in the operation and according to sources had refused to attend the final two briefings by the Public Integrity Branch for the operation.

"The involvement of the {Public Integrity Branch} surprised us," said commission spokesman David Watson.

"We were expecting another Face Lift but when we went to the briefing last week, they sprang this undercover operation on us," he said. "We understand that there is a problem with stickers but we feel it could have been better handled in a different manner.

"We are trying to strengthen communications with the cab industry, and those arrests could set us back," he said.

The image of a cabdriver spread-eagled over his cab while officers patted him down intriqued a visitor from Madrid who just arrived at National Airport from New York City.

As one cabbie was handcuffed, the tourist snapped pictures. Through a translator, the man who identified himself only as Mr. Lopez said, "We have just come to your nation's capitol from New York. Never in New York did we see anything like this. Washington must be a dangerous place."