By the time Maxwell Gabriel allegedly crashed his taxi into a pedestrian, he had been stopped 22 times by police in the last 3 1/2 years.
According to the citations, Gabriel had sped at twice the posted limit, blown through stop signs and caused three other crashes before the woman was hit while crossing Michigan Avenue in June. In all, he had racked up 34 tickets since 2008 — well beyond the city's three-a-year limit for flagging dangerous cabdrivers.
But almost all the tickets were wiped from his driving record, allowing Gabriel to renew his taxi license year after year.
That's because Cook County judges dismissed the vast majority of his tickets, as they have done with many other heavily ticketed cabbies, the Tribune has found.
An analysis by the newspaper suggests that a far higher percentage of tickets are thrown out for cabbies on average than for regular drivers. The frequent court dismissals have repeatedly helped cabbies keep their chauffeur's licenses — including drivers who were later blamed for injuring or killing pedestrians.
"It's really scary," said Veronica Andrews, the pedestrian allegedly hit by Gabriel's taxi. "These cabdrivers are licensed to drive the public. They should be held to a higher standard."
In the wake of two recent deaths involving taxi drivers, the Tribune's findings have also frustrated safety advocates.
"When you have these repeat offenders who are still on the road, that's creating a lot of danger and a lot of unsafe conditions," said Ethan Spotts of the Chicago advocacy group Active Transportation Alliance. "People shouldn't be afraid to walk."
An advocate for cabdrivers, George Lutfallah, said he wasn't surprised by the Tribune's findings. Cabbies are likely ticketed more because they spend so much time on the road, he said, and their dismissal rates are higher because they are far more aggressive at fighting tickets to keep their licenses and jobs. But he supports weeding out dangerous cabdrivers who give the trade a bad name.
"If the city can crack down on some of these really bad guys … and let (the rest of) us do our jobs, I think the industry would be a lot better off," said Lutfallah, who publishes a Chicago cab newspaper.
A top city official has pushed for tighter restrictions on cabdrivers, labeling many as poor drivers.
But a review of court records shows city government may share the blame for undermining one of its own key criteria for flagging dangerous cabbies.
City government has long relied on two separate systems to take problem cabdrivers off the road: a citizen complaint process — riders report taxis for reckless behavior or other problems — and the traffic courts.
For years the city has checked each cabdriver's traffic record annually. In the past, anyone found guilty of three or more moving violations could see their chauffeur's license yanked. But beginning this summer, such nonrenewals became automatic for cabbies with at least three moving violations, city officials said.
The tougher policy coincides with two high-profile pedestrian deaths involving taxi drivers.
In June, police said cabdriver Yao Ofori skidded across multiple lanes of rain-slicked Illinois Street and plowed into a man on the sidewalk, killing him instantly.
About two months later, police said a cab driven by Mohammed M. Ahmed, 40, of Chicago, crashed into an elderly woman crossing Sheridan Road, causing fatal injuries.
In response to a separate city study of cars hitting pedestrians, Chicago Transportation Commissioner Gabe Klein blamed the problem in part on taxi drivers. The city found that cabdrivers were involved in more than one of every four pedestrian crashes downtown.
"The overwhelming number of taxi drivers unfortunately speed on a regular basis and set a pretty bad example for everybody else," Klein told the Tribune.
Klein vowed to push for stricter reforms, including asking police to help catch more dangerous cabdrivers.
But the Tribune analysis of court records found cabbies' current violations often have no consequences.
City versus county
Reporters reviewed the driving records of 28 heavily ticketed cabdrivers and found that citations from two of every three stops were dismissed. That's about double the rate for the average motorist, according to an analysis of available court data.
Most of those cabbie cases were handled by city lawyers, who said they couldn't say for sure why the dismissals happened. City officials say they are forced to drop cases for a variety of reasons, including officers or other witnesses not showing up to testify.
Haphazard record-keeping in the high-volume traffic court makes it difficult for anyone to determine why certain tickets were dismissed.
Most tickets for the 28 cabdrivers were heard in the Daley Center, in one of seven white-walled courtrooms decorated only by the words "In God We Trust" on one side. It can be a chaotic scene as attorneys busily negotiate with each other while hordes of people walk the hallways clutching tickets in search of their correct courtroom.
Hearings can take just seconds. For most cases, the court files contain only copies of the tickets, with quick notes jotted down on the judge's decision, often in scribbled abbreviations that are translated by clerks and typed into computers. There is often little elaboration on the reasons for dismissals. About a third of the tickets say they were dismissed for "want of prosecution."
What the Tribune did find, however, was a stark difference in dismissals depending on which lawyers handled the cases: the city's Law Department or the Cook County state's attorney's office.
Most of the tickets were written by Chicago police officers, and the city's Law Department by rule handles nearly all of those cases. For the 28 cabdrivers studied by the Tribune, the Law Department's dismissal rate was 75 percent.
Yet the dismissal rate was less than 40 percent for county prosecutors, who handle tickets issued by the Illinois State Police, some written outside Chicago and the most serious ones issued in the city.
Roderick Drew, a spokesman for the Law Department, could not explain the difference, but he said the city makes a "good-faith effort" to notify witnesses of court dates by phone, letter or subpoena. If a witness does not appear in court, the city will ask for the case to be continued, Drew said.
Chicago police did not immediately respond to questions about how often and why its officers do not show up to testify. But the head of the union representing rank-and-file officers said officers who fail to make court dates aren't slacking off. Officers may be out sick, on furlough or redeployed to appear at more serious criminal proceedings, said Mike Shields, president of the Fraternal Order of Police. "Traffic court is taken very seriously by the Chicago police," Shields said, but he acknowledged that it's "the lowest on the hierarchy for appearance."
The Tribune's findings concern the secretary of state's office, which also has the power to suspend the driver's licenses of those convicted of three or more moving violations in a year. Its spokesman, David Druker, said the agency fears the court system could be letting potentially dangerous cabdrivers remain on the roads. "I think we really need to look at how the system functions and study the results more in-depth," Druker said.
In one case, police said, a cabdriver even crashed into the back of a police car but was able to get his tickets dismissed.
Since 2006, police had stopped cabdriver Mohammed Ahmed nine times for traffic citations. That included three times during six months in 2006, once for going 60 mph in a 35-mph zone.
He pleaded guilty to speeding, but the other two tickets were dismissed, ensuring he didn't reach the three-strike threshold.
Ahmed continued to be cited more recently. In 2009, Chicago police said his taxi crashed into the back of an unmarked police car, sending an officer to the hospital. Records show that case was dismissed, however, when an officer didn't show up at court.
His last ticket to go before a judge — for an alleged stop sign violation — was dismissed in June when that officer wasn't in court.
Two months later, police said, Ahmed turned his vehicle into a crosswalk and ran over Coral Kier, 86, who had the right of way.
On a recent afternoon, Kier's brother, Morton, sat on the patio of his Elmwood Park home, thumbing through photos of his sister. He said she had been on her way to a physical therapy appointment when the crash occurred. She was still conscious when she was taken to a hospital, he said.
"I asked her how she was doing, and she said, 'It hurts,'" said Kier, adding that his sister died of her injuries the next day. "It's awful. She was sitting there in a hospital bed, helpless, which is exactly what she had always tried to avoid in her life."
Ahmed did not answer reporters' questions at a recent court hearing for the tickets stemming from the fatal crash other than to say he plans to plead not guilty.
In nine previous cases in which he was ticketed for alleged traffic violations, he has walked away with dismissals in eight of them.
High dismissal rates
The Tribune investigation found that even cabdrivers with the most tickets enjoyed some of the highest dismissal rates.
For instance, Matthias Okpe, 48, had been stopped 18 times by police since 2008. Tickets from 16 of the stops were dismissed, court records showed.
That included speeding tickets from last year and a citation for a crash in which police said he hit a pedestrian so hard she landed five to 10 feet in front of the cab and had to be hospitalized. Nora Leahy, 24, said she was walking across Sheffield Avenue on her way home when Okpe's vehicle crashed into her, knocking her unconscious and fracturing a vertebra.
"It happened so fast the next thing I remember I was on the ground," said Leahy, who said she had to have spine surgery. "My whole body was in pretty bad shape."
Okpe did not respond to a message left at his Northwest Side apartment.
Another driver — Gabriel — had even more stops resulting in tickets. Since 2008, police have stopped and cited him 23 times, among the most of the cabdrivers studied by the Tribune. Sixteen of the cases were dismissed.
Among his dismissed cases: He allegedly lost control of his vehicle in March 2010 while turning, hit a light pole and injured his passenger.
He was still able to keep his cab license despite all the citations.
Reached on his cellphone while driving his cab this week, Gabriel, 41, whose most recent address was in Chicago's Rogers Park neighborhood, told a reporter during a brief interview that he did not think he had an inordinate amount of driving infractions.
He also denied hitting Andrews with his cab in June on the Magnificent Mile.
"If I ran into you with a car, you'd fall down," Gabriel said. "She didn't fall down."
Andrews said she was walking with pedestrians in the crosswalk with the "walk" sign at Michigan Avenue near Water Tower Place when she suddenly felt a bumper cut into her knee, knocking her body onto the hood of Gabriel's cab.
Andrews said Gabriel stopped a block later — his passengers later told her they had ordered him to stop.
As she was limping and crying, he asked for her phone number, gave her one he said was his and told her to get in his car, she said. After she refused, he drove away, she said.
He later called her repeatedly while she was at the hospital, yelling at her for seeking treatment, Andrews said.
"He shouldn't be on the road," she said.
The tickets from that crash are pending in court.
Three days after that crash, Gabriel was back in court for a previous ticket — an improper turn.
The case was dismissed.