By Suzy Khimm, Published: April 15
The Washington Post

An alleged rape near Howard University early Saturday has raised new questions about taxi safety in the District, after police revealed that the victim had just emerged from a cab and the suspect had been riding along in the front seat with the driver.

Mohammed Suleiman Roble, 35, has been charged with first-degree sexual assault, according to court documents. Apparently a friend of the driver, Roble was in the taxi when the victim climbed in near Ninth and U Street NW and asked to be taken home, according to police.

When she got out on the 2600 block of Georgia Avenue NW, Roble allegedly got out too, pulled her into a nearby alley and sexually assaulted her, police said.

D.C. taxi regulations prohibit drivers from bringing passengers along on the job. But the driver, Mohammed Sharmakealt, worked for Loudoun Executive Cab and was not licensed to pick up customers in the District, according to Ron Linton, chairman of the DC Taxicab Commission.

That fact provoked new concerns Monday about safety threats posed by illegal cabs in the District. City cab drivers must submit to both FBI and local background checks as well as a training course. But Loudoun County does not regulate cabs. And, according to a search of Virginia business records, Loudoun Executive Cab is not a registered company in the state.

“Women are scared to death, and I would be too,” said Larry Frankel, chairman of the Dominion of DC Professional Taxicab Drivers Association. “The public is unwittingly getting into these cabs thinking they’re legal.”

There has been no noticeable increase in assaults of taxi passengers in recent months, said D.C. police spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump. But anecdotal accounts of assault and harassment have animated local politicians and community organizers, who have demanded further action.

“Every customer has to believe that they are safe,” said Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells. “I am certainly interested in seeing what else can be done.”

The DC Taxicab Commission polices unlicensed taxis, but it does not patrol between midnight and 8 a.m. — precisely the time that most unlicensed cabs are out and about, Frankel said.

“It’s a real problem,” Linton said. “We don’t have the resources to put in hack inspectors after midnight.” He said the department is planning to increase enforcement staff in September.

The taxicab commission has impounded 355 vehicles since October, largely for failing to be licensed, and there is a $500 penalty for operating an unlicensed taxi in the District. Bringing along an unauthorized passenger in a cab carries a $250 penalty.

The Washington Post generally does not name victims of sexual assault. According to court documents, the victim got into the cab with an unidentified male acquaintance. That man was dropped off on Georgia Avenue, and the victim got out to say goodbye to him. Roble got out, too. Police said the victim planned to get back into the cab to be driven the rest of the way home, but the cab drove off and she was left alone on the sidewalk with Roble.

After Roble allegedly pulled the victim into the alley, she screamed for help, according to court documents. Police arrived to find Roble on his knees and the victim on her back, screaming, with dirt on her clothes and hair, according to court documents. One officer grabbed Roble by his shoulders and pulled him off.

According to the documents, Roble told police that he has known the woman for two years and the sex was consensual.

One of the victim’s shoes was found in the alley, police said. Her purse, a broken cellphone and a condom wrapper were also recovered. The victim was treated for multiple scrapes and bruises at a local hospital, police said.

It has been three months since a District man, Emero Tornero, was convicted of raping three women who believed he was a taxi driver. A rape investigation against a driver for Uber, a taxi alternative, was dropped this month.

Melanie Lyons, 43, a former D.C. resident who lives in McLean, said she was harassed by a cab driver who picked her up in the U Street corridor in May. “My radar has definitely gone up for sure,” said Lyons, who said the driver followed her out of the cab, verbally abused her and stole her phone.

Lyons is skeptical, however, that having more licensed drivers who passed background checks would be enough to combat the problem. “Anyone can pass any sort of test,” she said.

Roble is a Somali immigrant who came to the U.S. illegally, according to a 2012 arrest warrant. His lawyer, Lavonda Graham-Williams, declined to comment on either of the charges.