More from Elise Stolte, Edmonton Journal
Published on: December 11, 2015 | Last Updated: December 11, 2015 11:00 PM MST

A covert investigation has led to charges against roughly 70 Uber drivers and a massive wave of cases set to hit the busy provincial bylaw court.

“We’ve set 70 or so for trial and they keep coming in,” said defence lawyer Paul Moreau, hired by Uber to handle them. “This is sucking up an enormous amount of resources. They’re having to adjourn other cases to make room for this.”

In the first case, heard earlier this fall, the driver was acquitted. The City of Edmonton appealed to the Court of Queen’s Bench and that decision is pending. The second driver was convicted Wednesday. But that case will also be appealed, said Moreau.

The third and fourth cases started this week. Both are tied up with complicated legal debates about the admissibility of evidence: an emailed receipt from Uber to the undercover investigator and the details of what an Uber driver said to the investigator. The investigator, a retired police officer, secretly recorded the conversation without getting approval from a judge.

Four different commissionaires are handling the files, in some cases ruling on essentially the same facts with slightly different arguments at the same time, said Moreau. “This is a really bizarre situation. … I feel like I’m living a movie, only it’s Groundhog Day.”

In the 1993 movie, Bill Murray plays a weatherman who finds himself forced to repeatedly relive the same day.

City officials have consistently refused to say what actions they’ve taken against illegal taxis, except to complain Uber stymied their crackdown by cancelling their investigators’ accounts.

Moreau said in his first case, bylaw officers used the Uber app only to find drivers. Then a young female city employee approached the driver, said her app was broken and offered $20 for a ride. The driver testified he said no, but let the young women into the car while they tried to fix the app. The city employee testified he said yes. Uniformed municipal enforcement officers swooped in as soon as she entered the car.

The second, third and fourth cases all involved a retired police officer who set up an account under a fake name and took 53 rides.

Garry Dziwenka, head of the city’s vehicle-for-hire division, said his officers now issue tickets in batches to avoid constantly having their Uber accounts cancelled. Drivers face $1,400 fines.

As for using court resources, “we take enforcing our vehicle-for-hire bylaw seriously. … We’re hoping it’s a deterrent,” he said, noting changes to the vehicle-for-hire bylaw that returns to council Jan. 26 will increase the fines for driving an illegal taxi to $5,000.

Driver Eyob Mandefro had been with Uber three months before the undercover investigator climbed into his car last April. He received a ticket, but won’t stop driving, he said during a break in the court proceedings. Uber is handling the fine and all the legal details, he said.

Taxi drivers who work for cab companies are forced to work so many hours just to pay their weekly car rental fee, it hurts customer service and their health, Mandefro said.

He used to pay nearly $800 a week for the right to drive a taxi, but sat in his car working for so many hours each day his weight ballooned to 188 pounds. “Now I’m 164 pounds,” he said. “I go to the gym every day. I’m healthy.”