Masked men descend on Uber drivers, riders

Imagine what went through the minds of bystanders Friday night at Caesars Palace when the masked men in bulletproof vests showed up.

Were they extras from the next installment of the “Oceans” movie series? Not exactly.

With lights flashing they converged in two cars on a white, late model Mercedes, blocking it from making a fast getaway from the entrance to the casino resort. The fact it wasn’t trying to escape made their maneuver all the more effective.

After stopping the Mercedes, they ordered the driver to exit the vehicle. The car was searched from front seat to spare tire. Eyewitnesses to the incident would have been forgiven for thinking the masked men were pursuing a radical jihadist on the loose, a mafia hit man on the lam, or a drug cartel courier on his route.

Alas, it was nothing so tame. The Mercedes driver was in the process of dropping off two passengers who’d hired him via Uber, the naughty Internet-based ride-sharing company that uses freelance drivers and has brought local cab companies to the brink of apoplexy. A hearing is scheduled for 9 a.m. today in District Judge Doug Herndon’s courtroom to determine whether Uber will be allowed to continue operating during what is expected to be extended legal wrangling.

While we can only guess what went through the minds of those who witnessed the scene Friday night, we do know what the driver of the Mercedes was thinking. Although he’s Armenian by birth, the naturalized citizen speaks English and three other languages. He’s a full-time driver with a local taxicab company who commonly grinds out 60-hour workweeks.

And the masked men, who work as investigators with the Nevada Taxicab Authority and Nevada Transportation Authority, scared the hell out of him.

Officially, the investigators didn’t want their identities revealed because they work undercover. Not, as I suspected, because the masks match their bulletproof vests and make them look intimidating. Officially, the driver doesn’t want his name used because he fears losing his regular job being blackballed from the local taxi business.

“They told me and my passengers to get out of the vehicle,” he said Tuesday. “They turned on the bright white lights. One said, ‘Put your hands on the hood. You work for Uber?’ I said, ‘I can’t see your face. I didn’t do anything wrong.’ Everyone was taking a picture of me.

“I felt worse than a terrorist.”

A terrorist would have had his rights read to him. The driver, a six-year veteran of the traditional cab racket, was cited for picking up a passenger without a certificate of public convenience and for allowing an open container in the vehicle.

One of the passengers was sipping from a red Solo cup the investigators believed had alcohol in it.

A few minutes later, the driver recalls, a TA officer said, “It’s takedown time.”

“What is this takedown time?” the driver replied.

He received his answer in the form of two citations and having the vehicle, registered to his wife, towed to a distant yard. He figures the citations will cost an estimated $400.

Uber officials are springing for the cost to get the drivers’ personal vehicles out of impound and are renting cars for future use.

Meanwhile, one of the driver’s passengers has been identified at Jonathan P. Poteat, who is listed as the director of technology for the Whittlesea Bell cab company. So it appears the investigators had a little help with their takedown.

When asked the reason he decided to freelance for Uber, the driver said it boiled down to simple economics. His wife is undergoing expensive fertility treatments and the family needs the money.

Uber officials argue their service is a technology platform, not a transportation company, but not everyone in Nevada is onboard. The state attorney general’s office is seeking a temporary restraining order, and Uber attorney Donald Campbell is challenging it on a number of statutory and procedural grounds.

The case shines a rare spotlight on Southern Nevada’s powerful and lucrative taxicab companies, whose owners have had the run of the Strip for decades.

They’ve forged favorable laws at the Legislature, and have muscled out competition whenever possible.

If those masked and menacing state taxicab investigators aren’t careful, someone’s going to start to think they’re playing the role of security for the cab companies.

And just imagine what a scene that might eventually cause.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. Follow him on Twitter @jlnevadasmith.