Judge gives rogue Aspen cab driver 15 days in jail
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN – Saying another fine against Phil Sullivan wouldn’t do any good, Pitkin County District Judge Gail Nichols on Friday sentenced the rogue Aspen cab driver to 15 days in county jail for his second contempt-of-court conviction in less than a year.
Sullivan, 76, won’t start serving his term until Jan. 25 because of a medical examination in Grand Junction scheduled for Jan. 24. In March, he served little more than a week of a 15-day sentence – getting time off for good behavior – on the first contempt charge after Nichols ruled that he violated a July 2010 order barring him from taking money for rides.
Unlike the defiant crusader who represented himself in 2010 and part of last year against allegations that he was operating an illegal cab, it was a humble and compliant Sullivan who appeared in court Friday afternoon. He let his attorney, Rob Couhig of New Orleans, do the talking and said little when Nichols sought his understanding of the situation.
Before the sentencing, Couhig pleaded for more creative sentencing options, including a fine that he said could be paid by Sullivan’s many friends and supporters within days. In a motion rejected by Nichols before the proceeding, Couhig said Sullivan planned to create a nonprofit group devoted to providing rides to other nonprofits and people in need.
He argued against jailing a man of Sullivan’s age for the seemingly minor offense of taking tips for late-night taxi rides.
“There’s nothing really more I can say, judge, other than I think being creative is what this court’s about,” Couhig said. “To put him in jail doesn’t serve any purpose.”
But Nichols said the law prevented her from considering options other than fines or jail time. “I can’t be proactive,” she said, adding that the case wasn’t a criminal proceeding, which would have allowed her to suspend the sentence or develop a creative sentencing alternative.
Sullivan doesn’t hold a state license to operate a cab, and drivers for other local cab services, primarily High Mountain Taxi employees, have complained that his presence on the roads in and around Aspen is unfair and that he should be forced to play by the rules.
Assistant attorney general Emanuel Cocian, representing the state Public Utilities Commission, argued that Sullivan should serve the maximum sentence of six months. He told Nichols that the case no longer was about the PUC, its regulations on taxi services and its opposition to unlicensed cabbies. Rather, the sentencing decision should focus on Sullivan’s blatant disregard for the court, he said.
“A slap on the wrist is not appropriate in this situation,” Cocian said, adding that he wanted Sullivan “off the road” so that he would realize the consequences of his actions.
Couhig, a well-known attorney, businessman and political figure from the Crescent City who took up Sullivan’s defense as a pro bono case, told Nichols he would personally hold Sullivan’s driver’s license for a certain period of time in order to satisfy the PUC’s worry that the renegade cabbie soon will be back on the street in defiance of the judge’s order.
Nichols said she couldn’t officially endorse or require Couhig’s offer of holding Sullivan’s license but said she thought the idea had merit.
The courtroom was largely full for the 45-minute proceeding, with Sullivan’s supporters wearing T-shirts bearing messages asking the court not to send the cabbie to jail. Critics also were present, including drivers for High Mountain Taxi who signed a letter to the court stating that Sullivan regularly operated a taxi in the downtown Aspen area from late October to early January – even after he was found guilty of contempt on Oct. 20.
Nichols said she would not consider the letter in her decision, adding that such information would have been more appropriate prior to a hearing on contempt charges, not sentencing.
Sullivan faced heavy fines and up to 60 days in jail. He already has been fined more than $15,000 for previous violations.
A Woody Creek resident, Sullivan lives on $1,000 per month of Social Security income. He has said he does not operate a taxi for profit and merely enjoys giving friends and service-industry workers a ride home late at night. The money he collects, he said, pays for gas and upkeep on his vehicle.
After the sentencing, Sullivan appeared to have mixed emotions about Nichols’ ruling and said he would comply with the order not to operate a taxi for gratuities. He also joked that with all the free time on his hands from not giving friends a ride home, he’ll be looking for a job.
Couhig said he was disappointed that Sullivan was given a jail term but said he understood why Nichols ruled the way she did.
“Given the fact that this was the second time, I was glad to see that she saw that he had changed his attitude in terms of recognizing the difference between disobeying an order of the court and simply disagreeing with the underlying law. He’s entitled to his disagreement with the law, but at a certain stage you have to follow what the judge orders,” Couhig said.
During the hearing, Nichols congratulated Sullivan for following the advice of his attorney.
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