Traffic Police can seize the vehicle and/or license plate for operating as illegal public transport. Photo La Nacion

Q COSTA RICA – On Wednesday, the Constitutional Court or Sala IV as it is popularly known, declared law 8955 that regulates the Servicio Especial Estable de Taxi (Seetaxi) – the from door to door private transport service,constitutional and reactivated the fines to those who provide public transportation illegally, that is without counting State permits, as is the case with Uber drivers.

The Sala IV process began in October 2015 when legislators Otto Guevara and Natalia Diaz of the Movimiento Libertario filed a challenge to the law approved in 2011 regulating “porteo” or informal taxi services.

On February 11, 2016, the Constitutional Court said it was analyzing the constitutional aspects of Ley 8955 and suspended any fines issued by the Policia de Transito (Traffic Police) for illegal taxi services. During this period, Transitos (traffic officials) could issue fines, they would be noted on the driver’s record, but the offender was not obliged to pay until a final judgement.

That ended Wednesday, when the Sala IV declared without merit the challenge by the legislators.

What this means is that Seetaxis can operate legally as do the official taxis, but, everyone else will be subject to a fine and or seizure of the vehicle if found to be providing a public service without a permit.

The Sala IV, in its decision of Wednesday was clear that the resolution did not include if the Uber company was a legal or illegal service.

But what of the drivers?
Starting yesterday (Thursday) drivers affiliated with Uber could face sanctions by traffic officials,  as it was before the constitutional challenge.

A Traffic Official witnessing a passenger getting into a Uber affiliated vehicle or any other vehicle offering public transport service, for that matter, can fine the driver and/or seize the vehicle and/or license plates.

Why are taxis acting violently against Uber drivers?
With the Sala IV decision Wednesday everything goes back to the way it was more than a year ago, taxi drivers angry at Uber drivers for taking away theri business have returned to taking matters into their own hands and waging a war on Uber drivers.

“The taxi (drivers) are celebrating,” were the words of Victor (last name omitted), an airport taxi driver who spoke to the Q on Wednesday night.

According to Victor, the taxi (drivers) see the Court decision as the end of Uber that began operating in Costa Rica in August 2015.

Thursday morning, the morning after the Sala IV ruling on illegal public transport services, a group of taxi drivers corralled an alleged Uber driver on Paseo Colon. Photo Telenoticias

On Thursday morning, a group of taxi drivers corralled a Uber driver while picking up an alleged personal family member with two minors.

The aggression by the taxi drivers was reported to authorities, who immediately came to the aid of the driver and the occupants of the vehicle.

“On Paseo Colon a guy with a private vehicle was waiting for a woman with two children, when she was getting in the vehicle, which we do not know if it was a Uber or not, some taxi drivers swarmed the vehicle and the guy calls police who came to his aid. There was no confrontation,” said Carlos Hidalgo, spokesperson for the Ministry of Security.

However, the television cameras told a different tale.  On Telenoticias, the driver, with his identity protected, speaking to the television cameras said the taxis pounded on the hood of his vehicle and terrorized him and his passengers.

In the end, this time, the stand-off ended peacefully. No one was hurt. N one was arrested or fined.

Back to the Sala IV ruling. Magistrates Ernesto Jinesta, Fernando Cruz, Fernando Castillo and José Paulino Hernández said Ley 8955 (approved by majority vote in 2011) did not create a monopoly and that “the existence of a managed public service, directly or indirectly, does not infringe the freedom of commerce,” the basis of the constitutional challenge by the two legislators.

The magistrates were clear that their decision did not involve in any way the presence of Uber in Costa Rica.

What is the future of Uber in Costa Rica?

Legislator Guevara told La Nacion, “The ruling will not stop the use of the Uber platform in the country, when there are more than 500,000 people who have downloaded the application and more than 13,000 affiliates (drivers) of the company providing a service”.

At Uber Costa Rica, they are not concerned.

Last week, ahead of the Sala IV ruling, Humberto Pacehco, general manager of Uber operations in Central America, said the eventual ruling would have no effect on its operations in Costa Rica. “Uber will continue to work normally,” he said.

Following the Court decision Wednesday, Pacheco said the resolution is an opportunity to improve the regulatory framework of transportation services in the country.

“This resolution represents an opportunity for the Legislative and Executive branches to act to provide an adequate legal framework so that citizens of Costa Rica can benefit from technology and innovation in the service of mobility. At Uber we reaffirm our willingness to be part of this important dialogue,” Pacheco said.

However, Gilbert Ureña, of the National Forum of Taxi Drivers, there is contentment among the public transport guild  (taxis) because the Sala IV decision ratifies that no one can provide public transport without the permission of the State.

According to Ureña, the government must watch over the legal system, in other words, apply the rule of law.

What of drivers (and owners of vehicles) of illegal public transport?

As of yesterday (Thursday) morning, drivers affiliated with Uber, as any other driver who provides the illegal service of public transport are exposed to a fine of ¢104,600 colones (plus costs). The fine can also be extended to owners of vehicles (when not the driver) who lend their vehicles for the illegal service.

That fine is if issued by the Traffic Police un the the Traffic Law.

In addition, the Autoridad Reguladora de los Servicios Públicos (Aresep) – regulator of public services – can, under the Ley General de Administración Pública, levy a fine of between five and 20 base salaries of an official of the Poder Judicial (currently between ¢2 and ¢8 million colones).

The Aresep can also cam order the immediate closure of any company offering an illegal public service.

In either or both cases, authorities also have the power to seize the vehicle and/or license plates.

Some important notes on all of this.

  1. If a Transito (Traffic Official) issues a fine and/or seizes the vehicle and/or license plates, all that is required is payment of the fine and costs.
  2. However, if the seizure is under the Aresep ruling (applied by the Transito), the process becomes a legal battle.

What about passengers of an illegal public transport service?

According to the director of the Traffic Police, Mario Calderon, the Traffic Law gives officials the same powers as of the country’s police force (Fuerza Publica), so if a driver or passenger does not heed to a Traffic Official’s request they can be held in contempt of authority.

That is to say, as a passenger you may have legal problems if you do not get out of the car or you refuse to answer questions.

Calderon added that it is all at the discretion of the official, depending on the situation he/she faces at the time he/she stops the vehicle/driver allegedly committing an offence.

Sources: La Nacion; Telenoticias; Policia de Transito