Three Uber drivers say they were targeted and entrapped by an undercover Los Angeles Police Department sting operation that resulted in their arrests and the impounding of their cars.
Uber is a transportation service that lets people use a mobile app on their cell phone via GPS to schedule rides. All payment is handled electronically through the app with no cash.
Roy Freeman, Michael Chadwick and Sid Lomeli say they were doing their job Friday in Downtown L.A. when they were each flagged down by a woman on the side of the road who was looking for a ride.
The drivers say they stopped to pick the customer up thinking she could use the app on the spot to schedule and pay for a ride, but the woman did not have the Uber app, and instead, insisted.
“A lady vigorously waved me down,” Freeman said.
Chadwick interjected, “I almost thought she maybe needed help or something.”
“She said, ‘Uber?!’ according to Lomeli. “I said, ‘Yeah, Uber.’”
Lomeli said, “Then the girl opened my back door. She said, ‘Come on, I really need to go to this place. I really need to go, please.’”
Freeman said, “She said, ‘I have a friend across the street, let me wave her over.’”
“My door was open and, next thing I know, the cops are behind with the sirens on,” Chadwick said.
Police arrested all three drivers and impounded their vehicles.
The drivers went on to assert that the undercover cop was trying to catch “bandit cabs” who accept off the books rides for cash, and refused to use the app, which would have made the ride legal.
That they claim, is entrapment.
Sting operations are fraught with ethical concerns over whether or not they constitute entrapment. In the United States, entrapment can be claimed if the defendant can prove they had no “predisposition” to commit the crime.
Los Angeles transportation officials confirm that police agencies do conduct the type of operations described by the men, but maintain anyone providing a transportation service is subject to arrest if the ride is not pre-arranged.
“Bluntly, I think it’s very cruel,” Chadwick said. “This could have been handled in a much better way. This is going to set me back bad.”
As of Monday, the men were still attempting to recover their vehicles.
Both the LAPD and Uber have not yet commented on the incident.
Local news coverage:
Over the last year, we have seen more and more targeted law enforcement operations geared toward ensnaring drivers of Uber and Lyft.
Police in Madison, Wisconsin appear to be conducting routine rounds of sting operations on ride sharers. Back in April, an operation resulted in $1,300 in fines for drivers and in August, a second operation netted $1000 in fines for the department.
Officers in plain clothes used apps to summon rides and then cited the drivers for violating the city’s taxi ordinances and for transporting passengers for hire without a license.
A police captain in the traffic division said at the time that the fines were meant to “send a message that the city was not going to tolerate their operation without licensing.”
After police in Pittsburgh issued dozens of tickets, with penalties varying from $25 to $300, to drivers for operating without licenses, judges issued cease-and-desist orders to both Uber and Lyft after the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission filed a petition against them on June 16 of last year.
Since then, Uber won an experimental license to arrange private rides throughout much of Pennsylvania, a victory that came with a warning “to abandon its anarchist ways” and comply with state regulators.
The Philadelphia Parking Authority has been sparring with Uber drivers, impounding cars and issuing $1,000 fines. The agency considers them unlicensed cabbies because they do not have taxi medallions, which can cost as much as a half-million dollars in the city.
Officers working with the city Department of Transportation have also conducted stings in Austin, Texas.
In October of last year, at least five drivers, four in Las Vegas and one in Reno, Nevada, were cited by regulators for a combined total of up to $10,000 in fines.
One driver relayed the experience describing five unmarked white Nevada Taxicab Authority vehicles surrounding his blue Ford Focus as he was driving east on Fashion Show Drive about 3:30 p.m. He was pulled over while trying to drop off two passengers. Two undercover officers wore black ski masks.
“It’s like a sting. It was crazy, man. They had one cop on the front telling me to get out of the car, if I had any drugs. It was wild,” the man said.
In January, a sting operation netted six Uber drivers who were fined more than $44,000 by Palm Beach County officials in Florida.