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Over police chief's objections, council grants taxi appeal

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Against the advice of both the city police chief and the city attorney, Elizabeth City City Council voted Monday to grant a taxi driver's permit to a local man with three long-ago convictions for driving while impaired but who had his license suspended as recently as four years ago.

Council voted 5-3 to grant Theodore Lee's appeal of the police department's denial of his application to drive a taxi.

Siding with Lee were Councilors Darius Horton, Gabriel Adkins, Rickey King, Johnnie Walton and Kem Spence. Voting to uphold the police department’s denial were Councilors Jeannie Young, Billy Caudle and Anita Hummer.

Lee asked for council's help last month, explaining he wanted to drive a taxi because he needed to make more money. He acknowledged that he had been convicted of driving while impaired in the past, but said he had been “delivered” from alcohol and is now a driver in good standing with the state of North Carolina.

Police Chief Eddie Buffaloe subsequently reported to council that N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles records show Lee’s first conviction for DWI was in 1992. He had two other DWI convictions in 1999, the second also including a conviction for driving while license revoked, Buffaloe said. DMV records also show Lee’s license was suspended as recently as 2014, he said.

Buffaloe told council he stood by his department’s decision to deny Lee a taxi driver's permit, citing his “extensive driving record.” The city's taxi ordinance provides various grounds for denying a taxi driver permit, including when someone is a “habitual violator of traffic laws.”

Lee noted in his formal appeal to council that he got his license back later in 2014, a claim city officials haven't disputed.

Most councilors agreed Monday that Lee had reformed since his DWI convictions, and could be trusted as a taxi driver.

“I believe that there is a time when a person is rehabilitated. … 18 years is a long time,” said Horton, who moved to grant the appeal. Lee should be allowed to make money, Horton said, also noting the Division of Motor Vehicles allows Lee to drive his personal vehicle.

City Attorney Bill Morgan warned councilors against allowing Lee to become a taxi driver, however. Morgan explained the police department asked him to assess the risk of granting Lee's appeal. In doing so, he determined the city could be held liable if it grants Lee a taxi driver's permit and he then gets into an accident due to drunk driving.

The injured parties would presumably sue Lee and his employer, Morgan explained, but could also sue the city “because we, as an elected body, have chosen to go against our own ordinance and grant this gentleman the right to drive.”

That Lee holds a valid driver's license now doesn't justify allowing him to drive others professionally, Morgan noted.

“When we grant someone a taxicab permit, we're saying, ‘It's OK for you to go out and take members of the general public around.’ … I think there's a higher standard people should be held to when you're granting that kind of permit.”

Morgan also said the city's insurer, the NC League of Municipalities, had informed him that, if Lee caused a drunk driving accident while driving a taxi, it would not cover the city's damages or even provide legal counsel in the case.

Based on Morgan's determination, Young and Caudle said granting Lee's appeal was an unacceptable risk to the public, and to taxpayers. Caudle warned the city might have to use local funds to pay a multi-million-dollar settlement if the city is found liable for an accident Lee caused.

“I personally do not think that's a risk we should be willing to expose our voters and our citizens to,” Caudle said.

Caudle and Young also asked Morgan if city councilors could be held personally liable if Lee caused an accident. Morgan said it was possible.

Walton strongly vouched for Lee's ability to drive safely, however, and suggested those opposed to granting him a taxi permit were exaggerating the risk he poses.

“I know Mr. Lee real well; he's not the same Lee that did these things in 1999,” Walton said. “I know he can drive.”

Walton also claimed the city could be sued if any taxi driver it permitted got into an accident. “So don't be putting that fear factor out there,” he said.

Morgan reiterated that council's decision to grant a permit against Buffaloe's recommendation is what would strengthen a legal case involving Lee.

In followup interview Tuesday, Lee said he was pleased that council granted him the permit, and he's “in the process” of finding a taxi employer.

He also said he understands Buffaloe and Morgan were just doing their jobs, but reiterated he's a changed man.

“They're not Jesus,” Lee said. “I've been delivered.”

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