Rogue Aspen cabbie gets 15 days in jail
ASPEN – A district judge on Tuesday sentenced maverick cab driver Phil Sullivan to 15 days in county jail for ignoring a court order that prohibited him from collecting tips from passengers.
Sullivan, 75, of Woody Creek, was ordered straight to Pitkin County Jail. When a reporter asked him if he would resume his taxi operation when he’s freed, Sullivan didn’t mince words: “Yes,” he said.
The sentencing hearing, held in Pitkin County District Court, attracted a number of Sullivan supporters, some of whom pleaded for leniency and no jail time, calling the outspoken driver a good man who means well. Wearing a faded yellow T-shirt with the logo for the Mellow Yellow Taxi service – which he co-founded in the mid-1970s – Sullivan also told District Judge Gail Nichols that he didn’t deserve time behind bars.
But Nichols said she had little choice but to jail Sullivan because he was in contempt of court for blowing off an injunction she issued last July that forbid him from accepting gratuities from passengers. The judge ruled him in contempt following a trial Feb. 22.
The injunction was issued after the Colorado Public Utilities Commission had contended that Sullivan did not have the proper license – a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity – to tote passengers around town. The PUC made its case by enlisting undercover officers to collect a tips from Sullivan, most recently in late August, more than a month after the injunction was issued.
Sullivan also had admitted to accepting gratuities, contending that he lived and drove by his rules – not the PUC’s. He did not, however, charge a fare to his riders and his cab didn’t have a meter.
“There is no one in Pitkin County that is threatened with jail for accepting gratuities,” he said.
Nichols noted that Sullivan’s candor with the court played in his favor. Sullivan faced up to six months in county jail; PUC attorneys had asked for 30 days.
“You have been remarkably honest,” Nichols said. “You did not lie, you did not try to deceive others. You were very honest.”
But, she noted, “Your own witnesses, they testified (at last week’s trial) that you gave them a ride [and collected tips] and the court order prohibited that.”
Nichols added that Aspen transportation service “High Mountain Taxi is complying, and complying costs money. Even if you disagree with the laws of the PUC … other people have to comply with its rules. Basically, it’s expensive to be a cab driver.”
Nichols also said Sullivan’s failure to make an effort to comply factored in her decision to send him to jail.
“I don’t get any message … that you plan to comply. That’s the problem.”
Replied Sullivan: “I don’t have any intent to comply.”
Assistant Attorney General Emanuel Cocian argued that Sullivan has consistently defied the PUC’s authority since he captured its attention in 2006. Sullivan had essentially blown off a string of orders from the PUC to get off the road because he didn’t have the proper licenses to operate a taxi service. He also ignored nearly $13,000 in fines against him, instead hauling late-night partiers and service workers to their destination in his white KIA mini-van, which he typically stationed in front of Bentley’s at the Wheeler after 9 p.m.
“Whether he likes the PUC or not is irrelevant … and does not give him license to ignore the law or this court’s order,” Cocian said, adding that Sullivan “needs to hear that message once again from this court.”
Sullivan and longtime friend and Mellow Yellow Taxi co-founder Harvey Gilmore said the PUC had been sending mixed messages. At one time, the PUC told Sullivan he was free to collect tips so long as he didn’t charge a fare, Sullivan and Gilmore argued. Nichols, however, said that didn’t matter – the issue at hand was that he violated a court injunction, nothing more, nothing less, she said.
Sullivan also retreated to an argument he has made ever since the PUC began to hone in on him: He did not charge people for rides and did not run a taxi business. Instead, he had claimed, he simply provided a complimentary shuttle service. In essence, Sullivan said, he has been providing a service to the community.
His supporters agreed.
“He’s very generous and just like he has gotten me home safe and warm in my bed, please let him be safe and warm in his bed tonight,” said David Hauer.
Said another Sullivan supporter: “I think the state needs to find more people like Sullivan.”
That remark drew applause, but Nichols was not deterred.
“I wish I could do something to minimize the sentence and to make you comply. …That’s what’s preventing me from giving you a very lenient sentence.”
Sullivan had previously said he had been retired but lost $2 million because of bad investments – so he took to the streets of Aspen. But he also enjoyed the social aspects of driving, mingling with passengers and making new friends.
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The 2020-21 ski season is going to look substantially different from previous ones. The Colorado Department of Public Health has released its final guidance on coronavirus protocols for resorts and guests to follow.