An appeal board that looks after taxi, limo and ride-hail issues in Winnipeg decided to keep a man accused of assaulting and forcibly confining a passenger from driving a cab on city streets for five years.
Amit Kumar, who drove for Unicity since 2009, had his taxi driver’s licence taken away by the city’s Vehicles for Hire Office in November after an incident involving a passenger last September.
He launched an appeal of that decision, and had a first hearing with the city’s Vehicles for Hire Appeal Board in May.
At a meeting Thursday, that board decided to uphold the original decision to remove Kumar’s licence.
“The enforcement team put a lot of effort into this, and we took a lot of time to think about a decision, so we’re obviously pleased that they upheld it,” Grant Heather, director of the city’s vehicles-for-hire department, said in an interview after Thursday’s meeting.
“It’s certainly important for the public to have faith in public transportation.”
Neither Kumar, nor his lawyer, wanted to comment on the decision.
No member of the appeals board wanted to comment on why they upheld the original decision.
The decision says Kumar cannot reapply for a cab licence in Winnipeg, nor for any other public transportation licence, for five years, unless he meets specific conditions, including anti-racism training.
The complaint against him goes back to Sept. 26, when a Unicity Taxi picked up three women.
One of the passengers, a 19-year-old First Nations woman, said after a dispute with the driver, her two friends jumped out of the cab, but the driver assaulted her and locked her in the vehicle.
When she tried to get out, she says the driver drove on, dragging her for a short distance.
Winnipeg police charged the driver with forcible confinement and assault, but the Crown decided not to pursue the charges further.
Heather said the city’s vehicles for hire bylaw “sets a baseline for what passengers and drivers should come to expect for safe transportation.”
“All passengers expect a safe trip. They expect to be treated commensurate with good customer service, and there are consequences to actions that would be overstepping that.”
‘Aggressive’ and ‘troubling’ behaviour: city
At Kumar’s appeal board hearing in May, the city’s public service said they reviewed more than 260 hours of previous footage from Kumar’s cab, as well as footage from the night in question, and described his past behaviour as “aggressive” and “troubling.”
But on Thursday, Kumar’s lawyer said he was a responsible driver who was afraid for his safety, and that his actions were never meant to intentionally hurt the passengers.
Nicole Smith, a lawyer with Pitblado Law who represented Kumar, said part of the reason for the conflict on Sept. 26 was that he asked for payment in advance, “and the passengers thought he was being racist in doing so.”
She said he asked for prepayment because he thought a past pilot project was still in place. He also turned off his meter at one point.
“The pandemic has caused significant financial hardship on taxi drivers because of the drastic reduction in demand for rides,” said Smith.
“This caused Mr. Kumar to violate the bylaw by turning off his meter on occasion. By doing so, he could obtain more rides from dispatch.”
Smith said Kumar’s demeanour changed after one passenger allegedly poked him from behind, which isn’t shown in the footage that was reviewed.
Smith also said Kumar insists the women picked up beer and wanted to drink in the back of the cab. The public service says there’s no evidence of that from the footage.
In response to the passenger’s claims she was dragged along when she tried to get out of the cab, Smith said Kumar was trying to put distance between him and the other passengers at the time.
The passenger held the door closed at one point, and Kumar didn’t realize the door was open when he was driving, Smith said.
Driver ‘ashamed and very remorseful’: lawyer
Kumar wants his licence back as soon as possible since his livelihood is at stake, Smith said. She said he’s the sole provider for his parents in India and his young family here in Winnipeg.
Smith acknowledged Kumar’s overall behaviour “demonstrated a deficiency in … knowledge of the bylaw.”
But she said he is “ashamed and very remorseful, and he is willing to remedy this behaviour also through retraining and education.”
The issue of driver safety and fare-jumping came up repeatedly during Thursday’s meeting, as it has at past meetings involving the Vehicles for Hire Board.
Smith said Kumar owns his own cab, but can’t get anyone to drive at night because of safety concerns.
Heather said council just approved $10,000 to work with the cab industry on a public safety awareness campaign on these issues.
The campaign will aim “to make people more aware that it is the driver’s place of work, their place of business, and they also deserve a safe trip,” he said.
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