Atlantic Cities

The Tale of a Taxi Driver Who Just Won't Stop Driving

The Tale of a Taxi Driver Who Just Won't Stop Driving

Earlier this month, Philip Lee Sullivan was released from jail, again, for driving a taxi in Aspen, Colorado. The 15-day sentence, reduced to nine for good behavior, was his second in a calendar year, and he's grown a bit fond of the place.

"The cots are a little hard but not too bad," he said last week. It also has yoga, religious meetings, workout equipment, basketball. "It's not the worst place in the world to be."

For a little over five years now, Sullivan, 76, has operated an unlicensed cab service in the city. The state Public Utilities Commission, which oversees the taxi industry, and High Mountain Taxi, Aspen's major cab company, have been trying to get him off the road for nearly as long. But so far nothing — not fines, not injunctions, not hard prison cots — has done the trick. 

"That's all I've ever done: drive. Period," Sullivan says. "I've been a driver all my life. That's what I do."

Sullivan came to Aspen in 1968 to drive a taxi. The city had not yet become the high-end vacation spot it is today, and since there wasn't much demand for cabs, there was only one company in the taxi business. "This was the only one that was attempting to make it, and they weren't doing a very good job," Sullivan recalls. He joined the team and drove for the next 7 years, until the owner finally gave up.

Sullivan took the company for a handshake and a promise that he would pay $33,000 whenever he raised the money. In exchange he received everything the cab company had in its name: "two broken-down cars and one radio." He found two partners to put up some of the money, and together they gave the Aspen cab market another go.

In time, the enterprising trio created a sizeable and respectable taxi venture. The cab fleet, known as Mellow Yellow, numbered roughly 70 vehicles, Sullivan recalls, and the company ran a van and limousine service as well. After a while the partners wanted out of the business, though, and Sullivan "reluctantly went along." By 1995 everything had been sold.

Sullivan's early retirement didn't last long. "I invested the money I made in the taxi company in the stock market and lost about 99 percent of it in a hurry," he says. He tried his hand at a few things, including real estate in Illinois, but when his financial situation grew desperate he knew there was still one thing he did well, so he returned to Aspen to drive a taxi.

•       •       •       •       •

After a few years driving for the city's main cab company, High Mountain Taxi, Sullivan tried to break off on his own. There was only one problem: he didn't have the money to do it. These days, starting a new cab company in Colorado requires securing a utilities commission permit by proving a public need for such a business — a lengthy, expensive legal process that Sullivan estimates would cost him several hundred thousand dollars.

So, instead of recruiting some partners, this time around Sullivan did some homework until he stumbled on what he considered a legal loophole. All the rules he could find governing taxi companies concerned vehicles-for-hire. "Well, I said, I'm going to be a vehicle-for-free," he recalls. He says he bought the same type of insurance cab drivers buy, put a bubble on top of his white Kia Sedona minivan, and in October 2006 hit the streets of Aspen in search of anyone who wanted a free ride.

Sullivan figured that what he wouldn't make on base fare he could recoup through gratuities. He couldn't compel anyone to tip, of course, but he knew his city well enough to know he'd make it — knew its robust service industry would show him sympathy, knew its well-to-do tourists had plenty to spare, knew its local newspapers would give him free publicity. And he didn't need much to survive.

"Sometimes they gave me money, sometimes they didn't," he says. "But more often than not I'd go home with enough money in my pocket to live the next day, at least."

On December 8, 2006, shortly after Sullivan began his vehicle-for-free non-service, he picked up a man near a taxi stand at the intersection of Mill and Hyman streets and took him about a mile to the Aspen Meadows hotel. When they arrived the man asked Sullivan what he owed. Sullivan said there was no charge, but that a regular cab fare for the ride might have run about six bucks. The man gave Sullivan $10 and said he didn't want change.

Just a short while later, Sullivan was back near the cab stand at Mill and Hyman when he saw the man approach him again. This time, instead of asking for a ride, he identified himself as investigator Joseph Kelley of the Public Utilities Commission, and served Sullivan with a civil penalty of $12,100 [DOC]. Most people, after being out $12,090 on a single ride, would consider cutting their losses. Not Phil Sullivan.

"I just filed it in the waste basket," he says, "and continued to operate."

•       •       •       •       •

Over the next several years Sullivan got caught in the same sting at least five times, according to court documents. Still, nothing ever really happened to him as a result. The closest he came to receiving a punishment was in January of 2009, when the city of Aspen initiated a case against Sullivan on the grounds that he'd failed to obtain a business license. Just before a jury trial began, the sides reached a settlement. Instead of paying a hefty fine and facing a jail sentence, Sullivan showed proof of insurance and paid $150 for a business license, he recalls.

"There's no law against picking people up and taking them anywhere," he says. "There's no law against anybody receiving gratuities."

Both High Mountain Taxi and the Public Utilities Commission beg to differ. In July 2010, after nearly five years of pressure, those parties finally convinced a judge to issue an injunction against Sullivan. The commission argued that Sullivan was in violation of two state statutes: one forbidding people from transporting passengers without obtaining a certificate from the commission stating "that the present or future public convenience and necessity requires or will require such operation," and another requiring such carriers to not only have proper insurance but also keep it on file with the commission.

Judge Gail Nichols of the Pitkin County District Court agreed. On July 16, 2010, she permanently enjoined Phil Sullivan from operating a motor carrier until he complies with commission regulations. In her ruling, Judge Nichols concluded that Sullivan's service might "jeopardize" public safety and that his behavior, more generally, "promotes a lack of respect for the law." She also ruled that Sullivan himself wouldn't be harmed by the injunction:

In this case, the only harm to Mr. Sullivan is the money he will have to expend to come into compliance with the mandates of the Commission's rules. This is not a harm at all, as this is something that every taxi service must bear in order to be in the taxi business.

Sullivan contends he has suffered a great deal of harm from the ruling. "I'm seventy-six," he says, often falling back on his age. "There's not a hell of a lot out there I'm ready, willing and able to do." He says he receives just enough social security to pay his rent and food each month, but has nothing extra to offer his grandchildren. "I want to show up in their lives as a positive force."

Sure, it might be slightly less than fair of him to grab a passenger or two from the established and licensed cab drivers. But he claims the owner of High Mountain Taxi fired his wife, who also used to drive a cab, simply because she was Phil Sullivan's wife, and that the company tried to evict him from his house on grounds that he paid an employment rate but wasn't actually working. "Fair?" he says, "I don't know."

After being caught in another sting last January, Judge Nichols sentenced him to 15 days, which he finished serving in March. Right before his release the Aspen Times spoke with Sullivan in prison:

AT: Has the time behind bars here caused you to reconsider your actions that led to this?

PS: I've thought about it quite a bit. I am really happy with what I've done and I intend to continue on in some form or another.

AT: Does that mean you'll start your taxi service up again?

PS: It's not a taxi service, but I intend to do what I've been doing.

That intention brought him back in front of Judge Nichols for a contempt of court hearing last fall. On the day of his sentencing, in January, a group of local Sullivan supporters showed up in court wearing shirts that said "Give an old guy a cheap thrill" on the front, and "Ride Phil" on the back.

A lawyer from the state attorney general's office argued that Sullivan is now sticking it not only to the commission and the competition, but also the court, and asked the judge for six months. Sullivan's attorney, Robert Couhig of New Orleans, responded that it "doesn’t do any good to put a 76-year-old man in [jail] who now understands the gravity of your order," reports the Aspen Daily News.

For the unusual circumstances Judge Nichols issued a "really unusual" ruling of another 15 days, which Sullivan finished serving in early February. Free again, he now must consider his next move. His new plan is for his wife to become a not-for-profit organization, then hire him as a driver. Couhig believes nonprofit drivers may fall outside the jurisdiction of the state utilities commission, according to the Daily News. Sullivan's hoping there's enough gray area there to fit a white Kia.

"I understand contempt of court: the judge tells you to do something, you better do it," he says. "But I love what I'm doing, and I'm seventy-six. I don't want to be a doorman somewhere."

Photo credit: Philip Lange /Shutterstock

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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