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Ride gone wrong: Allegations turn lives upside down

IT was a nightmare that ruined his reputation, distanced him from his children and cost him thousands of dollars.

Years later, the former taxi driver has rebuilt his life outside Winnipeg with a new girlfriend and successful career, but he said being criminally charged for sexually assaulting a passenger in his cab had a devastating and life-altering effect.

The man was acquitted after he was charged for an incident in 2001, when a 23-year-old woman said she was groped during a ride outside the city, but the stigma remains.

"It's a dark part of my history I'd like to remain a dark part of my history," said the man, who did not want his name used. "This is something that's been like a black cloud hanging over my head."

While charges have been laid against city cab drivers for sexually assaulting passengers, people familiar with the industry said cab drivers can be victimized by those who will use false allegations for their own purposes.

"I would never drive a taxi again as long as I live and worry about those who do," said the man, who's in his 50s.

It's a touchy subject -- other taxi drivers accused of sexual assault didn't want to speak to the Free Press.

For this man, the allegations surfaced after he picked up a woman at a city hotel and drove her to the RM of St. Andrews. She told a city media outlet weeks later she'd jumped out of the cab at an intersection and run through deep snow to a nearby home to ask for help.

The man was acquitted 14 months after the charge was laid, but not before his name was published in the media and his family was humiliated by the accusations.

"Driving taxi is a very stressful job and sometimes becomes very dangerous as well. You never know who your next fare will be and the conditions or activities of those individuals that you pick up," he said.

"That job exposed me to bikers, drug dealers, gang members, gangsters, prostitutes and thieves. Yes, most people were just normal individuals going about their business and were good passengers, but... you have no control over where you get dispatched or who your next fare will be."

Unicity Taxi president Gurmail Mangat said he doesn't think a cab driver's licence should be suspended by the Taxicab Board of Manitoba until they are convicted of a charge. The current policy means any driver immediately has his or her licence suspended if an accuser goes to police to make a report.

"We (believe in) the rule of law; you are not guilty unless proven guilty," said Mangat.

Unicity is the largest taxi company in the city and has about 265 taxicabs on the road.

Harinder Ghuman, president of Duffy's -- Winnipeg's second-largest taxi company -- also said he doesn't feel drivers should lose their licences "right away."

"That's a big issue," said Ghuman.

Publicity around these allegations can smear the reputations of other drivers, said Mangat.

That's why he's "totally opposed" to notifying the public when a driver is charged with the sexual assault of a passenger.

Drivers can be victimized by passengers who get into a fare dispute with the driver, he said, and then use allegations of sexual assault, harassment or assault as a way of levelling the score.

"They know the system... the drivers are scared," said Mangat.

Having a licence revoked can also have an immediately devastating effect for a driver, he said.

"These people lose their living right away," he said.

Mangat, who drives a cab, said he had an incident this month where a female passenger he picked up at a hotel took off before paying a fare.

The woman had been shopping and had two bags with her. She sat in the front seat of his car.

He said she ran away into a building he drove her to without paying -- and he didn't stop her.

"If I tried to grab her, hold her arm... I'm scared, I didn't do it," he said. "I didn't hold her bag, her purse."

He also said accusations can result from cultural misunderstandings.

Mangat used an example of a religious taxi driver who he said got into trouble after he touched her head to indicate he was praying for a female passenger confessing her troubles.

Having full shields that wrap completely around the driver won't end allegations against them, he said.

"Shield is for safety, OK, not for this kind of incident," he said.

For the driver who's rebuilt his life after being acquitted, there's lingering concerns.

A traffic stop two years ago resulted in a police officer being notified by a dispatcher about the allegations, he said.

"Next thing I know, I'm being looked at like I'm a pervert," he said.

He also said: "This information should not be available as it is embarrassing to say the least; in addition, if that officer decides to tell others about it, the stigma that surrounds that type of charge can have a very negative impact on me in the community and ruin my reputation as a professional person.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 29, 2011 A4

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