Businesswoman Sues City After Being Blocked from Helping Students Get Home Safely

Published April 17, 2012

Bloomington, Illinois is home to Illinois State University and a downtown nightlife scene that is often a mess. It’s also home to city officials who have decided to block a woman who wants to help clean up the mess. She’s fighting back in a lawsuit aided by the Liberty Justice Center of the Illinois Policy Institute.

The woman is Julie Crowe, a Marine Corps veteran in her 50s who has worked as a driver on the privately operated “party buses” in the city, which pick up university students who are looking for a way to get back to their dorms after the bars let out. Drivers herd the students into the buses in numbers that far exceed what’s legal or safe. On board, young people typically find themselves in the middle of fights, other people’s sexual activity, or other unpleasantness.

If a passenger is lucky, the bus will drop everyone off somewhere close to where he or she lives. Otherwise, even after taking the bus, a partygoer may be in for a long stagger home. 

In addition to having driven the party buses, Crowe has also worked for a “vehicle for hire” service driving students in smaller 15-passenger vans. As a van driver, she found young women in particular liked riding home in a calmer environment and liked having a woman driver they could talk to and who would take them directly to their doors to make sure they got home safely. 

Seeing an opportunity, Julie decided she would like to start her own business catering to these customers. Her would-be competitors and the city government, however, had other ideas.

Operators’ Opposition

As Julie discovered, the Bloomington City Code doesn’t let just anyone start a vehicle-for-hire service. A person must apply with the city, and the city government must hold a hearing—and all existing vehicle service operators may attend the hearing to say whether they believe the city should approve the new business.

Their opinion in Julie’s case could have surprised no one: The existing vehicle service operators didn’t think another competitor should be allowed. 

The city manager then weighed the hearing testimony to decide whether licensing a new business would be “desirable and in the public interest”—two subjective criteria that can mean whatever the city manager wants them to mean. 

One-Sentence Rejection

Julie received the city manager’s answer in a one-sentence letter: “The City of Bloomington has determined that there is not a need to have an additional Vehicle for Hire Shuttle, there [sic] your request has been denied.”

So the van Julie spent thousands of dollars customizing to serve her would-be customers has remained locked in her garage, serving no one.  Meanwhile, the party-bus chaos continues.

That would be the end of the story, except the Liberty Justice Center, the new public-interest litigation center of the Illinois Policy Institute based in Chicago, happened to see a news blurb about Bloomington’s denial of Julie’s application. We contacted her and have sued the city on her behalf. 

We contend the city’s licensing scheme is both unjust and unconstitutional. A law giving a city bureaucrat the power to arbitrarily deny a license because he or she doesn’t find it “desirable” flagrantly violates the constitutional guarantee of due process of law. So do the city’s procedures, which don’t allow an applicant to cross-examine the people who testify against her or to offer rebuttal evidence.

Coddling Cartels

Julie’s story is far from unique. Across the country, city governments protect politically privileged cartels in the taxi, limousine, and van-service industries from competition. The costs to the economy are immeasurable, as governments stop new businesses and jobs from being created and force consumers to pay higher prices for inferior service. 

We’re bringing this suit not only to allow Julie to start her business but also to create a precedent that will help protect everyone’s right to earn a living. We want the courts to declare governments can’t run schemes like these to benefit a few people at everyone else’s expense.  We want to restore Bloomington, the State of Illinois, and the nation to a place where people succeed or fail based on their ability to please consumers—not on their ability to please a bureaucrat.

Jacob Huebert ([email protected]) is associate counsel for the Liberty Justice Center, the public-interest litigation center of the Illinois Policy Institute.