A former New Orleans taxicab inspector who was fired last month for pepper-spraying a cab driver in October was charged Wednesday with aggravated battery in the incident.
Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office filed the charge against Ronnie Blake, 54, on the same day it dropped a separate charge accusing him of filing false public records related to an alleged taxicab inspection-sticker scam that turned up in an internal undercover probe five years ago.
Blake and a fellow veteran taxicab inspector, Wilton Joiner, were fired April 15, city records show, 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.
In the altercation that led to the battery charge against Blake, a hotel security video shows him pursuing Emmanuel Esterlin as the Alliance Cab driver walked away from him in the 100 block of Dauphine Street in the French Quarter on Oct. 23, after what Esterlin called a failed attempt to persuade Blake not to issue him a citation for parking illegally.
Blake is seen 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 placed Blake on 60-day emergency suspension on Nov. 27.
Quatrevaux declined Wednesday to discuss the findings of his investigation, which centered on Blake, Joiner and Malachi Hall, the controversial director of the city’s long-embattled Taxicab Bureau.
Joiner still faces a simple-battery charge in Municipal Court for allegedly grabbing Haunted History Tours guide Wendy Bosma, bruising her arm and tossing her up against a car.
That incident took place Nov. 9 while Bosma addressed a tour group outside the purportedly haunted LaLaurie Mansion on Royal Street. At the request of peeved nearby residents, inspectors had been cracking down on nighttime tours that went beyond a 10 p.m. deadline or violated other rules.
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 also dropped an initial battery charge issued against Esterlin because of his flailing at Blake during the altercation.
“The mayor has viewed the video and finds the actions unacceptable and inconsistent with what we expect from our Taxicab Bureau,” mayoral spokeswoman Garnesha Crawford said in a statement after Esterlin’s charge was dropped.
Tom Shlosman, an attorney for both Esterlin and Bosma, noted Wednesday that the video of Esterlin’s confrontation with Blake turned up in late November.
“My only question is what took them so long” to charge Blake, Shlosman said. “It took them six months. It’s definitely the appropriate offense charged. It’s without question an aggravated battery.”
Aggravated battery carries a maximum 10-year prison sentence.
Shlosman said Esterlin plans to pursue legal action over the incident.
On April 24, Shlosman filed a federal civil rights lawsuit on behalf of Bosma against the city, Hull, Joiner and Jared Munster, director of the Department of Safety and Permits, which includes the Taxicab Bureau. The lawsuit claims they violated Bosma’s right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure and from cruel and unusual punishment.
It also alleges a “pattern and practice of unnecessary, excessive and abusive force used by investigators” for the Taxicab Bureau and a lack of appropriate supervision.
The city, which once allowed taxicab inspectors to carry firearms and other weapons, has decided in the wake of the incident that municipal law gives the inspectors no authority either to detain members of the public or to use force against them.
On Nov. 18, the day a detective obtained a warrant for Joiner’s arrest on an allegation of simple battery in the altercation with Bosma, the Landrieu administration demanded all inspectors turn in their pepper spray and handcuffs and all were reassigned to desk duty pending a review of the bureau’s procedures.
Clif Stoutz, an attorney for both Blake and Joiner, insists 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 a list of gear considered “part of the required uniform for investigators” with the Department of Safety and Permits.
“He was working in his uniform, doing his duty, just like a police officer would be,” Stoutz said of Blake.
Quatrevaux’s office forwarded its findings on the two inspectors to the city on April 3, then three weeks later forwarded its findings on Hull, who was tapped in 2011 by Mayor Mitch Landrieu to shake up the notoriously troubled Taxicab Bureau.
Quatrevaux declined to say what his investigation found regarding Hull.
“We don’t make recommendations regarding discipline, sanctions, any of that,” he said.
A spokesman for Landrieu’s office did not immediately respond to a request for information on the firings of Blake and Joiner or the city’s response to Quatrevaux’s findings on Hull.
Video of the tour-guide incident shows Hull standing nearby as Joiner got into the altercation with Bosma.
Mayoral spokeswoman Garnesha Crawford said in January that Hull was reprimanded “verbally and in writing for not responding adequately to inappropriate actions by employees” in the incident involving Joiner.
According to an audio tape of an apparent meeting between Hull and Esterlin to discuss the scrap with Blake, Hull can be heard chastising the cab driver, for sparking the altercation by parking illegally, while also apparently trying to appease him. Hull also offered to help Esterlin land a job while the criminal charge against him was pending.
“Blake is not going to press charges against you, OK? I’m trying to figure out how he can get to, to speak to the folks in court though,” Hull is heard saying.
Stoutz said prosecutors pressed Blake for dirt on Hull but that the fired inspector could offer nothing. He called the city’s firing of Joiner and Blake “premature.”
“It didn’t look to me they had done anything wrong. It’s the actions at City Hall. There’s something going on,” Stoutz said.
Cannizzaro’s office, he said, is “trying to get to the bottom of things. They want to find out about the guy, Malachi.”
Cannizzaro’s decision to drop the case against Blake in the alleged inspection-sticker scam followed his dropping of similar allegations against United Cab Co. executive Donald “Cornbread” Juneau, who was accused of working the scheme with Blake. Blake allegedly had been bribed to give Juneau a stack of stickers indicating cabs had passed city inspections.
A day after Juneau and Blake were arrested in 2012, the city accused the two investigators who dug up the alleged scam, Joie Cutrer and Travis Trahan, and their boss, Michael Lentz, of dropping the ball on the undercover probe and failing to account for their time. Cutrer and Trahan resigned, while Lentz was fired.
“While the office believes that certain misconduct occurred with the respect to the issuance of taxicab inspection stickers, we were not in possession of evidence that proved beyond a reasonable doubt that such misconduct had occurred,” Cannizzaro spokesman Christopher Bowman said in a statement. “Additionally, evidence was brought to light that cast serious doubt upon the credibility of the investigators.”
Bowman said prosecutors kept the case against Blake open three months beyond the dismissal of Joiner’s while they screened the aggravated battery case.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter at @johnsimerman.