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After rape in unlicensed taxi, call for increased regulations

Donna Blythe-Shaw of the Boston Taxi Drivers Association urged more oversight of livery vehicles.

Bill Greene/Globe Staff

Donna Blythe-Shaw of the Boston Taxi Drivers Association urged more oversight of livery vehicles.

A woman reported being assaulted and raped last week in Newton after she was picked up by an unregistered taxi in the Seaport District, State Police said Friday, calling into question city oversight of livery vehicles operating outside the regulation of the Boston police hackney unit.

The incident occurred after midnight Aug. 6, when a 21-year-old woman said she left the Whiskey Priest on Seaport Boulevard and Northern Avenue, where she had been with a friend, and hailed an unregistered taxi. Prosecutors said the vehicle was a black livery car that did not have a Boston taxi medallion, which carries a requirement for drivers’ background checks to screen out people with criminal records.

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Ignoring the woman’s request to be driven to the community where she lived, the driver of the vehicle drove her to Newton where he stopped on Nonantum Road outside Daly Memorial Skating Rink, according to police. There, she told police, he assaulted and raped her. After she struggled with her assailant, he threw her to the ground and drove off, she said.

Police and the Middlesex district attorney’s office are investigating the crime, but have made no arrests.

Law enforcement officials came under fire for failing to publicize the rape report when it occurred last week. The lapse happened because of a jurisdictional mix-up between State Police and the Middlesex district attorney’s office, State Police spokesman David Procopio said Friday.

Typically, Procopio said, once the district attorney’s office has taken up a case, State Police defer to prosecutors for public comment. The district attorney’s office took over the case the evening after it occurred, and both agencies failed to publicize the crime.

That policy of passing on responsibility for reporting the crime to the public to prosecutors, Procopio said, is changing.

“In retrospect, I realize we should have issued a public alert regardless of the involvement of the district attorney,” Procopio said. “From this point forward, we will issue timely public statements for assaults on state property about which we know enough facts to ensure the alert is relevant.

“We will do this so that the public can make an informed decision as to whether there is a threat to their safety,” he said.

After the report of the attack, an advocate for taxi regulation renewed calls for heightened oversight of livery vehicles that operate outside the purview of the Boston taxi system.

“We knew something like this was going to happen,” said Donna Blythe-Shaw, a representative for the Boston Taxi Drivers Association. “We’re just surprised that this hasn’t happened sooner.”

At issue are livery vehicles — authorized by the state Registry of Motor Vehicles to carry passengers for commerical purposes — that do not have taxi medallions issued by the Boston Police Department, which can cost more than half a million dollars, and are not subject to background checks, regular safety inspections, or fuel emission requirements.

Unregistered livery vehicles have become a hot-button political issue in the last several years with the emergence of new companies such as Uber, which allow passengers to call a driver with a smart phone app outside of the standard city taxi system.

After the city of Cambridge filed suit against Uber, attempting to bar it from operating within city limits because of concerns about the safety of passengers, Middlesex Superior Court ruled in June that the company, and others like it, are allowed to operate.

The results of the court case make clear that unregistered taxis do not fall under the purview of Boston police, said police spokeswoman Cheryl Fiandaca.

Blythe-Shaw said she is not calling for the companies to cease operating. Instead, she said, city officials should enact further safeguards to help ensure drivers pose no threat, mandating background checks and requiring that livery licenses be renewed annually.

“Anyone could go out and buy a black car and put it on the road,” Blythe-Shaw said. “It’s a public safety issue. . . . If they don’t get a handle on this, then it’s going to be like the wild, wild west.”

Dot Joyce, spokeswoman for Mayor Thomas M. Menino, said the city would wait for an independent report due in October to determine whether last week’s assault warranted any change in the city’s policy.

“Boston, as a hub of innovation and growth, has looked very closely at this issue and is seeking the expertise of an outside independent consultant that is reviewing all hackney-type services in the city,” Joyce said. “We will await that report before making any judgments in this one incident.”

For people considering hopping into a cab, Blythe-Shaw advised that they check to see if there is a medallion on the vehicle’s license plate and a hackney license on the vehicle dashboard.

Still, she said, it can be difficult to tell, and that, she said, is why she would like to see Boston regulators place official city seals on the outside of all registered taxis and livery vehicles, making it easier for prospective passengers to know that a taxi driver has been vetted.

“They may look respectable,” Blythe-Shaw said. “But it’s just by luck that you get somebody respectable. There’s no guarantee.”

Martine Powers can be reached at mpowers@globe.com.
Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this article incorrectly listed Hailo as a company functioning outside the standard city taxi system. Hailo uses a smart phone app to hail taxis that are licensed with the city.

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