Nova Scotia

Taxi driver charged with sexual assault months after getting licences back

Police allege the 44-year-old driver sexually assaulted a female passenger after driving her to a residence.

Halifax taxi driver Lesianu Zewdie Hweld recently had his suspended taxi licenses reinstated

Halifax Regional Police said 44-year-old Lesianu Zewdie Hweld was arrested and charged on Wednesday. (Robert Short/CBC)

Police say a 44-year-old Halifax taxi driver has been arrested and charged with sexual assault.

The arrest comes only a few months after the driver's suspended taxi driver and owner licences were reinstated.

Halifax Regional Police said in a press release that officers responded to a report of a sexual assault in Halifax at around 3:20 a.m. on Sept. 14.

Police said in the release that a male taxi driver drove a female passenger to a home in Halifax and sexually assaulted her while she was in the vehicle.

Officers arrested Lesianu Zewdie Hweld without incident at police headquarters in Halifax on Wednesday.

Hweld was charged with one count of sexual assault and was released to appear in Halifax provincial court at a later date.

Police are not releasing any other details, according to the release.

Accused recently got taxi licences back

Hweld, a driver for Yellow Cab, had only recently regained his taxi licences after a series of infractions, according to Halifax councillor Lisa Blackburn.

In April, the city's licensing authority denied Hweld's application to renew his taxi owner and driver licences after it learned he had driven without a provincial driver's licence and failed to report his driving infractions.

Hweld appealed the decision, and in July, Blackburn was the only member of the city's appeals standing committee to vote against Hweld getting his taxi licences back.

According to a committee report, the authority said Yellow Cab confirmed that Hweld continued to drive under his roof light while his provincial driver's licence was suspended between Aug. 16 and Oct. 23, 2018, and again between Nov. 19 and Dec. 31, 2018. 

On October 21, 2018, during his first suspension, Hweld had a collision while driving a taxi. The authority said it confirmed with Halifax Regional Police that it happened during his suspension and he was charged as a result.

Neither of these suspensions were reported to the authority, the document said.

"They are supposed to report to HRM if there [is] any change in their licence status," Blackburn said.

"So if they lose their driver's licence for whatever reason, and for whatever length of time, they are supposed to report to the licensing authority that that has occurred."

Blackburn says taxi drivers need to let the licensing authority know if there is any change in their licence status. (CBC)

She said the issue had nothing to do with the charge Hweld is facing today.

Minutes on the Halifax website say Hweld told the appeals standing committee that he didn't know he needed to inform the licensing authority and that staff didn't provide clear details about what drivers should do if their licence is suspended, or if they are convicted of a crime during a motor vehicle offence. 

Blackburn said his appeal in July was successful and his licences were reinstated. She said at the time Hweld chalked it up to a matter of paperwork, but she didn't agree.

"It was quite the convoluted series of events that just didn't make sense to me, and to me it was more than just a problem with paperwork," she said.

"To me, it showed a pattern of behaviour and that's why I was uncomfortable granting him the appeal."

Licences suspended after charge

On Friday, municipal spokesman Brendan Elliott confirmed that Hweld's taxi licences had been suspended as soon as the city became aware of the charges.

"That is normal for us," he said. "As soon as we're made aware of charges of this nature, we immediately suspend the driver's licence, and if he has a roof light, we would suspend the owner's licence at this time."

Elliott said Hweld can appeal the suspension again.

Hweld is the latest in a string of Halifax taxi drivers charged with sexual assault in recent years.

"It's a case of, 'Here we are once again,'" said Blackburn. "We've heard this song before."

The most high-profile case was that of former driver Bassam Al-Rawi, who was recently acquitted in a retrial.

The case garnered national attention after the original trial judge made the comment, "clearly, a drunk can consent."

Blackburn said she hopes new taxi regulations passed by Halifax council this week will help prevent more sexual assaults from happening.

Some of these changes include vehicles requiring debit, credit, and GPS, along with cultural sensitivity and sexual assault training for drivers.

"There's a lot there that I think can help prevent situations like this. I don't think it's going to be able to prevent every situation, but certainly, it will go a long way."