Cops play tourist in rickshaw sting Confessions of a rickshaw tour guide

It was business as usual for this rickshaw last week on King Street, but a police sting last year reinforced the city's ban on unregulated tours. A rickshaw driver received a $1,092 ticket for giving a tour to an undercover officer, dressed casually as a tourist.

It was a Charleston police sting unlike any other: An undercover cop dressed casually like a tourist taking a ride on a rickshaw.

The goal was to see if any of the downtown drivers were giving illegal speaking tours of the city's numerous sight-seeing spots.

One of them did, and it cost him a fine of more than $1,000.

City officials have put rickshaw drivers on notice that they can't give unlicensed tours in pursuit of a few extra dollars in their pocket.

As far as police see it, any retelling for hire about the city's past can be delivered only by a city-licensed tour guide, like those generally seen driving horse carriages or leading walking tours.

Charleston Police Sgt. Heath King said the sting was arranged after South of Broad residents complained that workers at the city's three rickshaw companies were giving unsanctioned rides through downtown neighborhoods.

The tours stood out for two reasons - the drivers were giving history lessons, and were also seen doing "laps" on the Battery with the same customers.

Both are against the rules for rickshaws, which are considered more like taxis for "Point A-to-Point B" trips, King said.

Related: Charleston social media reacts to rickshaw sting.

For the sting, which took place in September but came to light only recently, police officers went on two rides offered by each of the three rickshaw companies operating in the city (six rides total) - "to make it fair," King said.

The officers' dress was casual; mostly golf shirts and jeans.

"I didn't have them wear 'I love Charleston' T-shirts," King said of the disguises.

Of the six rides taken, only one of the drivers made the tour offer, King said.

Rickshaw driver David Criscitiello of Charleston Rickshaw said the tour involved his being dispatched to a downtown restaurant to pick up a female rider. He took her to the Battery, where along the way he talked about the city's sites and history points, even showing off Fort Sumter.

"As far I'm concerned we are not tour guides," Criscitiello said. "But I know where the pretty places are in town."

When the ride ended about 30 minutes later, Criscitiello was approached by another officer and given a $1,092 "touring prohibited" ticket. The discussion between the undercover officer and the rickshaw driver during the ride was recorded with a hidden device.

Perhaps no other city regulates tourism more strictly than Charleston, which issued its first tour license in 1952. To be approved as a recognized tour guide, it requires taking an exam and studying a nearly 500-page "City of Charleston Tour Guide Training Manual" covering hundreds of houses, churches and other significant buildings.

City officials contend that the crackdown was needed because allowing unregulated tours, even by casual method, would create gridlock and other problems as slower-moving vehicles could bring streets to a standstill when stories get told.

"Rickshaws are not part of that," King said. The number of complaints has decreased since the sting, he added.

Criscitiello said he is paying off his fine in installments after pleading guilty in municipal court.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551