NEW YORK CITY — On Sept. 2 last year, two Taxi and Limousine Commission inspectors pulled over a driver in Midtown they suspected of being an illegal cabbie. Little did they know the driver's passenger was one of the wealthiest princes in the world.
The driver, Ibrahim Senturk, was a handyman who works for Qatar’s consulate in New York. He was taking a son of the country’s billionaire king and another person to a gym on the west side of Manhattan.
The inspectors didn’t buy that Senturk was a private driver. They slapped him with a summons for being an illegal taxi driver and seized his Chevrolet Suburban, stranding the prince on the corner of East 53rd Street and Third Avenue.
READ MORE OF DNAINFO'S COVERAGE OF 'ILLEGAL' TAXI SEIZURES:
Six weeks later, Senturk proved his identity to a judge during his hearing at the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings’ Taxi and Limousine Tribunal in Long Island City.
The judge dismissed the case, noting that Senturk was simply an employee of the Qatari consulate, legally performing his job duties.
The decision stated that Senturk was filling in as a driver for the son of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, Qatar’s king who had recently stepped down as the ruler of the oil-rich country.
The name of the prince — Sheikh Hamad has 24 children — was not given in the decision and the Qatari Embassy did not respond to requests for comment.
“[Senturk] stated on the date of the stop, the regular driver of the vehicle was not around and, therefore, he had been ordered by the king’s son to take them and pick them up at the gym,” the judge wrote in the decision.
“He stated he was not working for hire and was merely following orders from his boss.”
A DNAinfo New York review of Taxi and Limousine Tribunal decisions showed that in the past year and half, judges dismissed 68 cases against people who, like Senturk, had been accused of being an illegal cab driver but were really working legally as private chauffeurs or a driver for a company.
TLC spokesman Allan Fromberg has denied that the agency's inspectors are given quotas to meet on vehicle seizures. But he also told DNAinfo that in May the TLC's new commissioner, Meera Joshi, ordered a review of the Uniformed Services Bureau, which includes inspectors.
She has also mandated refresher trainings on seizure protocol.
But as the Senturk case shows, wrongful seizures not only affect drivers but their deep-pocketed passengers. In a half-dozen of the 68 cases, drivers worked solely for mega-wealthy bosses, including a fashion mogul billionaire, millionaire financiers and celebrities.
Silas Chou, a Hong Kong investor who made $2.3 billion, largely off his acquisitions of fashion lines Tommy Hilfiger and Michael Kors, lost his ride around Manhattan on Nov. 5, 2013.
Chou’s driver, Rafal Czubek, was stopped by two inspectors after Chou exited his Cadillac Escalade at West 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue.
An inspector later testified that Czubek became irate during the stop and called the police. While they waited for officers to arrive, Chou came back to the car and told inspectors he paid Czubek an hourly rate of $60.
Still the inspectors seized the Escalade. Czubek put up a $2,000 bond to get his car out of an impound lot before his tribunal hearing.
The tribunal judge who heard Czubek’s case dismissed the summons on Dec. 16 after he testified that he had worked for Chou — who reportedly paid more than $50 million for an entire floor of luxury building One57 — for 10 years.
Czubek stated that he drove around the billionaire and his family and performed other services, like filling prescriptions.
“He described [Chou] as ‘high maintenance’ and he was getting paid for being Mr. Chou’s personal assistant,” the judge wrote in her decision.
Czubek declined to comment.
At least two other cases involved millionaire investors. In one, inspectors at JFK Airport seized the car of the personal assistant to Michael Wekerle, a Canadian finance whiz and reality show star. The case was dismissed on March 21, 2014.
Celebrities have also apparently been caught up in vehicle seizures.
Driver Daniel Jackson had his Chevrolet Suburban seized at LaGuardia Airport after dropping off a “famous person” on Sept. 19, 2013, according to a Oct. 31, 2013, tribunal decision.
In the decision, the judge doesn’t name the famous passenger but notes that he only gave a $100 tip — not a fare — to Jackson.
The judge dismissed the summons, noting that Jackson credibly testified that he was only doing a favor for a friend by driving the passenger to the airport.
“[Jackson] testified he was proud when the TLC inspector came over because he wanted to show off his passenger,” the judge wrote in the decision.
Jackson could not be reached for comment.
Sometimes inspectors put the brakes on a vehicle seizure when they realize a passenger is famous.
TLC enforcement sources said that last month inspectors at LaGuardia pulled the plug on the seizure of a car because the passenger was Giants wide-receiver Mario Manningham.
The sources said the inspectors’ superior told them to let the driver go because they didn’t want to draw attention to the TLC, which has been taking heat for its seizure program.
“Mario Manningham’s driver got a break because he was going to bring some negative press,” a source said.