Turkish Man Accused of Being Illegal Hack After Driving White Pals, He Says

By James Fanelli on June 16, 2014 7:19am 

 Turkish immigrant Mel Kalyoncu (right) gave his friend George Arnold (left) and his wife a ride to Kennedy airport. After the Arnolds went into the airport, TLC inspectors accused him of being an illegal livery cab driver. Inspectors issued Kalyoncu a ticket and seized his car.
Turkish immigrant Mel Kalyoncu (right) gave his friend George Arnold (left) and his wife a ride to Kennedy airport. After the Arnolds went into the airport, TLC inspectors accused him of being an illegal livery cab driver. Inspectors issued Kalyoncu a ticket and seized his car.
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DNAinfo New York/James Fanelli

DOUGLASTON — Postal worker Melih Kalyoncu said he was just doing a favor for two longtime friends — delivering them to Kennedy Airport so they could catch a flight to San Francisco.

But the good deed cost him his car, nearly $1,000 in fines and a day’s pay after city inspectors accused him of operating an illegal taxi when he dropped off the friends on May 1.

Kalyoncu, a Turkish immigrant, said he tried to explain to the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission agents that he had known his passengers for more than 20 years, but they didn’t believe him.

Those friends, George and Carol Arnold, told DNAinfo New York that they believe inspectors profiled Kalyoncu, 62, because he was a Muslim with a Quran on his dashboard who was dropping off a white couple.

“I think he was absolutely targeted by these goons,” George Arnold, 66, said of the inspectors. “This infuriates me. There is no room in New York for anyone to be abused like this.”

Kalyoncu and the Arnolds came forward after reading a story DNAinfo published last week about a Bayside couple suing the TLC over similar accusations of profiling.

That lawsuit claims that last year city inspectors accused Dan Keys Jr., a black car salesman, of operating an illegal taxi after they spotted him dropping off a white female passenger at a Flushing mall. The passenger was actually Keys’ biracial wife Symone Palermo, whom he was taking to work.

Between July 1, 2013 and June 13, 2014, TLC's 170 enforcement inspectors have issued 14,300 summonses to drivers of unlicensed vehicles making illegal hails, according to agency spokesman Allan Fromberg.

The inspectors seized 8,798 vehicles during that time. Drivers can’t retrieve their impounded cars unless they plead guilty and pay a fine or wait until their assigned hearing date to make their case before a city administrative judge.

Fromberg said agents do not have a ticket quota and only issue a summons after careful observation and having “established the requisite and constitutional level of suspicion.”

He said enforcement is critical to protecting the public from illegal drivers who have not met TLC’s high standards, lack insurance or who are not held accountable for actions the way licensed hacks are.

The TLC spokesman also said its agents follow strict guidelines “which do not refer in any way, shape or form to the race or ethnicity of those suspected of illegal for-hire activity.” 

However, Keys, Palermo and Kalyoncu all claim the inspectors made assumptions based on their appearance and were inflexible when they tried to explain the situations.

Kalyoncu, a married father of two who immigrated to the U.S. in 1980 and lives in Little Neck, picked up the Arnolds from their Douglaston home at 5:45 a.m. on May 1.

The postal worker got to know the couple by delivering mail to them for the past 20 years.

Kalyoncu and George Arnold said they speak nearly every day. Their conversations bounce from hobbies — photography and gardening — to news about each others’ children.

The three arrived at Kennedy’s Terminal 8 around 6:30 a.m. When the Arnolds got out, Kalyoncu waved off Arnold’s attempt to give him gas money.

“I said, ‘Mel, take this. Put gas in your car,’” he recalled. “He said no and turned around and walked away. That’s the kind of guy he is.”

After the Arnolds entered the terminal, Kalyoncu planned on heading straight to his mail route to start his workday. But TLC inspectors swooped in, standing in front of his car and demanding to see his license and registration.

“I have no idea what’s going on. I say, ‘Let me go. Did I do something wrong, some kind of double park?’” Kalyoncu recalled.

The inspectors accused him of making an illegal hail and wrote him a ticket.

“I told them I’m making $70,000 [as a postman], why should I come here for work?” Kolyoncu said. “If my car goes three times a day, seven days a week to the airport, then pull me over.”

The Arnolds said that when they entered the terminal, they assumed Kalyoncu had driven away.

While inside the airport, a man dressed in plain clothes accosted them, telling them he was conducting a survey and asked how they arrived at the airport. The Arnolds said they ignored him, believing he was a “conman.”

When the Arnolds kept walking, the man flashed a badge but said nothing, they said. They kept walking to the security gate and never thought anything more of the interaction until they returned to the city three weeks later and Kalyoncu told them what happened.

“Right away, I said, ‘He was profiled,’” George recalled. “They saw him. He’s a religious man. They saw the Koran on his dashboard.”

Kalyoncu said the inspectors seized his car at the airport and he was given a May 13 hearing date. But the postal worker needed his minivan for work and couldn’t wait two weeks to defend himself before a judge.

Instead he decided to plead guilty the same day his van was seized. He paid a $600 fine, plus another $381 to the impound lot.

Kalyoncu’s boss issued him a warning letter for missing work that day.

While he was at the airport, Kalyoncu said he noticed that the inspectors only stopped drivers “who had accents.”

“Whoever they picked up were Pakistanis, Turkish or Russian people,” he said.

George Arnold said he and his wife felt terrible about the incident and have even considered legal action.

“I paid all the tickets and I paid him for a day’s pay,” Arnold said. “It’s still not enough for the pain that man went through.”

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