Uber Faces Tougher Screening, but the Occasional Criminal Could Still Get Through

File photo
File photo

A new law signed yesterday by Gov. Jerry Brown will subject Uber and Lyft drivers to tougher security screening. But the measure doesn't take background screening to the depths faced by taxi drivers in the city of Los Angeles, where fingerprint-based checks against California Department of Justice and FBI databases are mandated for cabbies.

Earlier this year L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, City Council president Herb Wesson and Councilman Paul Krekorian jointly asked the state Public Utilities Commission, which oversees the ride-hail companies, to allow the city to fingerprint drivers who want to work in Los Angeles.

Instead, what we got was Assembly Bill 1289 by state Assemblyman Jim Cooper, a Democrat from Elk Grove. It does not require fingerprint-based checks. Rather it extends the time frame for driver background checks from seven years to infinity. Any crime committed when a would-be driver was 18 or older is game.

"As a father of four daughters, I don’t want my children being picked up by a driver convicted of murder or rape,” the lawmaker said. "AB 1289 will uncover the complete criminal history of prospective drivers and would help ensure the safety of riders utilizing TNCs [transportation network companies]."

Cooper says he was inspired by the criminal pasts of 25 ride-hail drivers uncovered by district attorney's investigators in L.A. and San Francisco last year. Overlooked crimes included murder, assault and DUI.

But under his bill, Uber and Lyft will continue to allow drivers to identify themselves without the almost fail-safe help of fingerprinting. Critics have said this could still allow imposters with records to get behind the wheel of ride-hail vehicles.

"I think it's important they have meaningful background checks," said John M. Simpson of nonprofit group Consumer Watchdog. "There's no doubt about that. It should be equitable with cab drivers."

When city leaders asked state regulators to let them fingerprint ride-hail drivers, this was the core of their argument, written in a letter to the PUC:

For decades, Los Angeles has required taxi operators to work under a franchise agreement with the city, which requires Live Scan fingerprints to crosscheck potential drivers with the state’s Department of Justice database and others. This provides an essential safeguard for riders by preventing people with significant or violent criminal histories from driving passengers in the city of Los Angeles.

We reached out to Uber and Lyft for their reaction to the governor's action. "Lyft applauds Governor Brown’s decision to sign AB 2763 and ensure that all Californians — including those who can't afford to own a car — can participate in the new economic opportunities created by ridesharing," a Lyft spokeswoman said. Uber didn't respond.

The ride-hail companies have fought fingerprinting tooth-and-nail, arguing that their background checks were more than sufficient. (Yet they settled suits, filed by the L.A. District Attorney's Office, alleging that their security claims amounted to false advertising.)

It's not clear why the firms are so resistant to using background checks long required by cab companies. They are not cheap, costing at least $51. That's a lot to ask of a down-on-her luck driver who needs work, especially when Uber and Lyft have been offering pay guarantees in what appears to be a driver-recruitment war. But that's just speculation.

"I would say the Assembly member's interest in pursuing the legislation was to improve passenger safety," said Roy Sianez, Cooper's legislative director. "He feels the bill moves the ball forward."

We asked if future legislation could possibly reach the goal of fingerprinting. "There's always room for improvement," Sianez said.


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