Whether a local retiree who operates what has been called a free taxi service is a criminal will be decided by a six-person jury of his peers.
The 72-year-old road maverick, Phil Sullivan, appeared in Aspen’s municipal court Wednesday morning, answering charges that he is violating five city of Aspen ordinances by running his free van around the Aspen area.
He is due back in court on Nov. 5, when dates for his trial will be selected. He has pleaded not guilty on all five complaints but he has not yet hired an attorney.
The free taxi driver is also looking for a free lawyer.
“I have the option of representing myself,” Sullivan said yesterday, “but I think [the case] is getting interesting and meaningful. I am looking for a pro bono attorney.”
Sullivan, one-time co-owner of the now-defunct Mellow Yellow local taxi service, can be seen driving around town nightly, in the 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. range, in a van with an illuminated green sign on its roof. The sign once read “Free Taxi” but now rotates various messages. The current sign says, “Vote.”
The driver maintains that he never asks for money and that he runs the service for fun, and as a community service. But the city claims he does accept tips.
“I take home the waiters and waitresses and bartenders and cooks,” Sullivan said yesterday. “This town needs more transportation services and more taxi-type services. I think the town is hurting.”
The city alleges that Sullivan, since 2006, has run a business without a license, not filed city business and occupation taxes, not displayed his rate for a ride, and operated a taxi without a meter. The city also claims that by running his free service Sullivan violated its “general requirements” for businesses, which mandates they abide by all laws, and forbids they do anything that could “affect the public health, safety, morals or welfare.”
Sullivan contends he is not charging for any services and does not operate a business, therefore he does not need to acquire a license or pay business taxes.
“To me it’s just silly,” he said.
The final three charges were filed on Oct. 9 and presented in court for the first time yesterday. The other two were filed earlier this year.
Jim True, special counsel to the city, said the charges rose out of complaints within Aspen. Sullivan counters that the only people testifying against him will be state employees who were paid to carry out a sting operation on him where he accepted a tip, not his local ridership.
Investigators from the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC) are expected to take the stand against him.
In 2006, Todd Gardner, owner of Aspen’s only taxi service, High Mountain Taxi, filed a complaint with the PUC that Sullivan did not have proper taxi insurance. Gardner, a vocal detractor of Sullivan in the past, was out of town Wednesday and could not be reached for comment on the current case.
The PUC levied a $12,100 fine against Sullivan in September of last year, which he refused to pay. He also refused to attend his PUC hearings in Denver. The fine was sent to the Colorado Office of Collections in January.
The municipal code ruling Sullivan’s current case gives city judges discretion to fine convicted lawbreakers up to $1,000 and sentence them up to one year in jail per violation. So the stakes for the rogue cabbie are potentially quite high, at five years and $5,000.
“I think I am innocent,” Sullivan said, “and I don’t think a jury of six people will take these charges seriously ... I’m just a guy who takes people home.”