A New Orleans taxicab driver filed a federal civil rights lawsuit this week against the city, Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas and other agency heads over an incident last fall in which a taxicab inspector named Ronnie Blake pepper-sprayed and handcuffed the driver in an altercation captured on video.
The lawsuit, filed by Alliance Cab Service driver Emmanuel Esterlin, marks the second federal lawsuit in three months alleging brutal tactics by inspectors with the city’s Taxicab Bureau over a pair of high-profile incidents last fall.
Esterlin was originally charged with simple battery in connection with the altercation with Blake outside a hotel in the 100 block of Dauphine Street in the French Quarter.
Blake, who has since been fired, had approached Esterlin’s illegally parked cab, and Esterlin said he pleaded with Blake not to ticket him. After a brief altercation, Esterlin walked away. A hotel security video shows Blake following on Esterlin’s heels, then jabbing his arm at the cabbie’s head and applying a faceful of pepper spray before Esterlin crumples and the inspector handcuffs him.
The city later dropped the battery charge against Esterlin, and District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro instead charged Blake in May with aggravated battery.
The lawsuit claims a “pattern or practice of unnecessary, excessive and abusive force used by investigators” for the city agency. It also claims that Jared Munster, director of the city’s Department of Safety and Permits, and Malachi Hull, the controversial head of the Taxicab Bureau, let Blake keep working and failed to properly investigate complaints against investigators.
Esterlin’s lawsuit follows one with a similar allegation filed April 24 by Wendy Bosma, a Haunted History Tours guide who scuffled with former bureau inspector Wilton Joiner the night of Nov. 9 outside the LaLaurie Mansion on Royal Street.
At the request of nearby residents, inspectors had been cracking down on nighttime tours that went beyond a 10 p.m. deadline or violated other city rules. Joiner tried to wrest Bosma’s permit away from her. Bosma claims Joiner wrenched her arm back and bruised her.
A video of Joiner’s actions turned up on the Internet, riling other tour guides, who rallied in front of City Hall before the city ultimately dropped the citations issued to Esterlin and Bosma.
The city has condemned both inspectors’ actions and quietly dismissed the two men on April 15, a few weeks after New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux sent the city the findings of an investigation into separate incidents of alleged misconduct by the two inspectors.
“This case really displays a clear pattern of abuse that the taxicab bureau was not only aware of, but that they condoned, and it appears they encouraged it in the fact they were aware it was going on,” said Thomas Shlosman, an attorney for both Esterlin and Bosma. City officials, he said, “had been aware for months and they did nothing to try and rectify the abusive and harrassing behavior that these investigators were subjecting the citizens of New Orleans to.”
A spokesman for Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office declined to comment, citing pending litigation.
The city, which once allowed taxicab inspectors to carry firearms and other weapons, decided in the wake of the incidents involving the two inspectors that municipal law gives the taxicab inspectors no authority either to detain members of the public or to use force against them. The results of Quatrevaux’s investigation have not yet been released, although the inspector general has said it focused on Blake, Joiner and Hull.
Clif Stoutz, an attorney who has represented both Blake and Joiner, has argued that the inspectors were only doing their duty for the city. He pointed to city policy documents and other records indicating that Taxicab Bureau investigators were measured on their arrest numbers and that pepper spray and handcuffs were among the gear considered “part of the required uniform for investigators” with the Department of Safety and Permits.
Joiner, meanwhile, faces a simple battery charge in Municipal Court over the incident with Bosma.
Esterlin’s lawsuit also names New Orleans police Officer Simone Quintero, who responded to the scene and, according the lawsuit, had Esterlin placed on a stretcher and handcuffed for a ride to the hospital. Quintero then arrested Esterlin for battery and took him to Orleans Parish Prison for booking. Esterlin remained jailed for about a day before posting bond.
Shlosman said Quintero “did absolutley zero investigation on the case” and used excessive force in restraining Esterlin. He said Esterlin now takes anti-anxiety medications, although he has returned to work driving a cab.
The 19-page federal lawsuit filed Tuesday accuses Serpas of condoning false arrests, excessive use of force and false imprisonment. It alleges violations of constitutional protections against illegal searches and seizures and cruel and unusual punishment.
Esterlin claims he suffered injuries to his eyes, face and head and emotional distress and anguish from the incident.
The charges against Blake and Joiner are pending.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.