Phil Sullivan has driven himself back to jail.
On Friday, the late-night giver of low-cost, illegal rides in Aspen was for the second time sentenced to 15 days in jail for disobeying a court order preventing him from making his nightly downtown rounds.
Sullivan, 76, of Woody Creek was not immediately taken to jail. He must report Wednesday after his attorney, Robert Couhig Jr., told Judge Gail Nichols of Pitkin County District Court that his client has a medical appointment at the veterans medical center in Grand Junction early next week.
In Friday’s hearing, Couhig asked Nichols to get creative with her sentencing, saying Sullivan now understands the difference between civil disobedience and violating the judge’s permanent injunction.
That court order, handed down in July 2010, was the result of a six-year fight Sullivan has waged with the Colorado Public Utilities Commission (PUC).
Investigators with the PUC, after repeated complaints from local cab company High Mountain Taxi, have caught Sullivan twice giving rides for money while not having a state license or proper insurance.
Emanuel Cocian, a lawyer with the Colorado attorney general’s office, said the PUC “gains nothing” by Sullivan sitting in jail for six months, the longest sentence he could have received. The attorney general’s office handles legal affairs for a variety of state agencies, including the PUC.
But the PUC “does want to see him off the road,” Cocian said. Sullivan’s violations of the court order is an affront to the judge, the state’s lawyer said, and the punishment of 15 days in jail that she handed down in March did nothing to deter Sullivan’s practice.
Sullivan is now no longer thumbing his nose at the PUC but at Nichols, Cocian said.
“If the court is asking me what I would do, I would throw the book at him, the full six months in jail,” he said.
While he said he was “unsure if this would help,” such a lengthy sentence would give Sullivan pause to think about whether continual violations of the injunction would be worth it, Cocian said.
“A slap on the wrist is not appropriate,” the state attorney said, adding that under state law Nichols could seize Sullivan’s property as part of sanctions. “There are consequences for disobeying regulations and violating the court’s order.”
Couhig, though, said putting Sullivan in jail “does not serve any purpose.” He said his client never meant to disrespect Nichols or her order. But because Sullivan felt so strongly that what he was doing was important for the community, he continued giving rides to friends and others for tips, Couhig said.
Sullivan now understands that Nichols’ “order, whether he agrees with it or not, has to be followed,” Couhig said.
He recommended that the judge sentence Sullivan to a short time in jail but suspend the punishment and have the defendant surrender his driver’s license. Couhig said he would be willing to take Sullivan’s driver’s license from him to prevent his client from violating the injunction again. Nichols could then immediately revoke the suspension of the sentence if Sullivan again violated the court order, he added.
“We’re all trying to find the right remedy,” he said.
Sullivan, described by his attorney as the principal competitor to High Mountain Taxi, agreed that he will now adhere to the injunction, which mandates he not give rides unless he obtains a state taxi certificate and the requisite insurance.
“That’s correct, yes, ma’am,” Sullivan confirmed to the judge.
Nichols, however, said because it is a civil contempt-of-court case, she was strictly limited to imposing only a fine or jail sentence and could not require he surrender his driver’s license. The judge also said state law prevents her from suspending a sentence.
Couhig then suggested that the judge could levy a punishment in which a substantial part of his client’s monthly Social Security check could be confiscated as punishment.
Couhig reiterated that it “doesn’t do any good to put a 76-year-old man in [jail] who now understands the gravity of your order.”
“I do [understand], and have always understood, that the order of the court is the final order,” Sullivan told the judge.
Nichols noticeably exhaled as she debated what to do, and soon after two women wearing orange T-shirts saying, “Give an old man a cheap thrill,” on the front and “Ride Phil” on the back joined the 20 or so attendees in the courtroom.
The judge recounted what she knew about Sullivan: that he had sold his taxi company but then lost nearly all of his money in the stock market. After that, he “obviously returned to what he is good at,” Nichols said. “He’s got the personality, everybody likes him.”
Her previous 15-day jail sentence of Sullivan should have been 30 days, the judge said, but she cut it in half because of his honesty. Sullivan served nine days of the March sentence and will likely serve the same number of days starting Wednesday because of state and local jail rules governing time off for good behavior.
“He was flagrantly disobeying the order but he did it straightforwardly,” Nichols said.
The judge this week also rejected a motion by Couhig to amend the injunction to allow Sullivan to drive people as part of a nonprofit. She essentially agreed with Cocian that Sullivan had not established what nonprofit he would be driving for. A perfect sentence would be one in which Sullivan transported drunk people to detox for an organization like The Right Door, Nichols said Friday.
“Unfortunately, I can’t do it,” she said, citing again the state law that mandates only jail time or a fine for a contempt-of-court violation.
Nichols told Sullivan that when he had his own taxi business decades ago, he had complied with the PUC’s rules and he would not have appreciated a noncompliant “gypsy cab” coming into Aspen and competing with his company.
She said she would not fine him because that might lead Sullivan to borrow money and then go back out driving people to pay off his debts.
Nichols called her identical, 15-day sentence “really unusual” but said she thinks that Sullivan is “starting to get the message.”
Cocian said he had no problem with Nichols not imposing the sentence until Wednesday to accommodate Sullivan’s doctor appointment. He did say he hoped Sullivan “isn’t out there tonight or this weekend” again offering his taxi-like services.
An arrest warrant will be issued should Sullivan fail to show up Wednesday at 7 p.m. to begin his sentence.
“I believe in you, Mr. Sullivan, so I’m hoping this works,” Nichols said.
The judge, noting the hour that he is supposed to report, encouraged Sullivan to eat dinner beforehand.