Who's behind the wheel? Madison cab drivers include felons, sex - WKOW 27: Madison, WI Breaking News, Weather and Sports

Who's behind the wheel? Madison cab drivers include felons, sex offenders

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MADISON (WKOW) -- Madison cab drivers with city permits include convicted felons, repeat drunk drivers, even registered sex offenders, as city policy and police background checks fail to stop a number of drivers with serious criminal, or traffic records from getting behind the wheel.

The police official in charge of the approval of applicants for taxi driver permits defends the city's approach, citing frequent rejections of applicants deemed too risky to allow to drive. Captain Richard Bach says when significant criminal or traffic histories are part of an applicant's background, factors such as how long ago the resume blemish occurred; the maturity of the offender at the time; and rehabilitation on since any missteps, are taken into consideration.

"I will try to give people a chance," Bach says.

The city ordinance on taxicab driver qualifications states denial of a license is based on an "...offense the circumstances of which substantially relate to the circumstances of taxicab...operation."

One cab driver who was approved for a permit was 30-year-old Nathan Middleton.

In October, after a Badger Cab shift, Middleton hired a teenage escort. Authorities say she died shortly after a rendezvous with Middleton at Middleton's Evansville home.  Middleton was convicted of the hiding of her corpse, and authorities remain suspicious of the circumstances of her death.

Middleton's highly publicized actions led to exposure of his past, criminal history of burglaries with a dangerous weapon, and a 2006 prison sentence. Middleton's crimes included stealing a shotgun, rifle, handgun, over $3,000, and tieing up one of his victims.

Bach says emails and calls came to the city, questioning how Middleton qualified for a permit to drive a taxi cab.

Bach notes Middleton received a taxicab permit more than six years after his convictions. But Bach says the Middleton case has led to more scrutiny of applications.

"Of course, situations like that cause us to reflect and take a harder look at the circumstances and the reasonableness of whether or not we approve or deny an application," Bach tells 27 News.

A review of the roster of city taxi drivers reveals some other drivers with questionable histories.

City documents show David Presberry possessed a taxicab permit despite a "...past conviction of possession of cocaine and numerous felony convictions."

In September, Presberry's permit was revoked in connection with two, on-the-job drug incidents.

Records also show a 53-year-old Madison man is a taxicab driver, with a 1992 felony attempted sexual assault conviction. Court documents state the man tried to rape a teenage acquaintance. Records state the man beat a stranger in 1995.

The man remains on Wisconsin's Sex Offender Registry.

Bach says even sex offenders can qualify for taxicab permits, under certain circumstances.

"There are people that are convicted of sex crimes that do not pose a threat, or potential threat to the community," Bach tells 27 News.

The man declined comment when contacted by 27 News.

Cab customer and UW-Madison student Natalie Salo says she takes exception to any registered sex offender getting behind the wheel of a cab.

"That definitely makes me uncomfortable and concerned," Salo says.

While Madison's ordinance on taxi drivers speaks to applicant disqualification over a criminal history substantially related to cab driver work, it also includes the caveat police officials must consider mitigating factors, even when histories include "evidence of lack of trustworthiness with money...theft...crime involved driving," and other conduct with the potential to impact work.

At least one other, Midwest city also refrains from using a felony conviction alone to disqualify cab driver applicants.

But qualification standards for taxi drivers in Des Moines, Iowa are more stringent.

City Engineer Jennifer Bohac says people with felony convictions for theft, assault, drugs, sexual abuse and public exposure are barred from being considered as a taxi driver applicant for ten years after their crimes.

Bohac says a ten year waiting period also exists for people with either felony or misdemeanor drunk driving convictions.

Madison's taxicab operators include a repeat drunk driver who was able to renew his city-issued permit, despite a fourth operating while intoxicated conviction in 2005.

Bach maintains Madison's vetting process for cab drivers is thorough, and city officials and cab companies are conscientious.

"I think they're very well concerned about the safety of the community and their companies' operation in the city," Bach says. 

Cab companies forward applications to police officials for background checks.

Middleton drove for Badger Cab. Badger Cab representative Rick Allen declines comment to 27 News on Middleton's hire, or the firm's hiring practices.

Union Cab business manager Paul Bittorf says different cab companies rely on different hiring standards. Bittorf says before any application is forwarded to police officials, Union Cab representatives examine an applicant's credentials. "And then they go through a very rigorous interview," Bittorf says.

Cab customer Cat Roehre says she's confident the screening process produces safe taxi drivers, even if there are sex offenses in their past.

"It kind of makes me nervous, but I'd like to think the background checks were reliable and credible," Roehre says. "People do deserve a second chance."

 "I wouldn't want to exclude any cab driver who's paid their debt to society," says cab customer Ben Emmel.

But Emmel says cabs service the elderly, the disabled and children. He says he's concerned at the more serious criminal histories 27 News has discovered among drivers.

"I think the city and all the cab companies need to take look at the policies, really investigate whether these background checks are effective," Emmel tells 27 News.

There are more than 300 taxi drivers with permits in Madison. And the police department's criminal background work may soon also encompass a new wave of drivers.

Ride-sharing companies Uber and Lyft have begun a controversial entry into Madison's transportation scene. The companies offer an online app to match up customers with drivers - drivers who are subject only to company screening, not police background checks. As part of granting Uber and Lyft formal city recognition, Madison alderman Scott Resnick proposes all their drivers be subject to the same criminal background checks used for the city's taxi drivers.

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