Uber has cut ties with eight drivers who have criminal records, as it attempts to win approval to pick up passengers at Los Angeles International Airport. The drivers, who have convictions including assault, DUI and possession of child pornography, were identified in recent weeks by L.A. Yellow Cab, which has been lobbying strenuously against allowing Uber and other ride-hailing services into the airport.
In several cases, Uber was unaware of its drivers' records because its background checks go back only seven years. L.A.'s cab companies argue that Uber's background checks are insufficient, in large part because they do not require fingerprints.
Within the next few weeks, the L.A. City Council is set to decide whether to allow Uber and Lyft to pick up passengers at LAX. Six council members have expressed concerns about Uber's background-check process. It would take 10 council members to override the decision by the Board of Airport Commissioners, seven appointees of Mayor Eric Garcetti, who voted last month to permit the ride-hailing services.
The council's decision comes as Uber faces increasing criticism over its handling of a recent case in Dallas, where an Uber driver is accused of raping a passenger after taking her home. Uber has admitted that it did not run a background check on the driver, who had served time for a felony weapons conviction. The driver began driving for Uber after applying with a fake city permit.
Uber also is being sued by district attorneys in L.A. and San Francisco over its background check process. The lawsuit accuses the company of “flagrant and unlawful business practices,” and of misleading customers about the efficacy of its screening process.
Uber has consistently fought back against such accusations, saying that no background-check system is perfect. The company claims it has rejected hundreds of taxi drivers in California who failed the Uber background check. It has not named those drivers, making the claim impossible to verify.
After being given the names of the Los Angeles–area drivers identified by the taxi firms as having criminal backgrounds, Uber said it had “deactivated” their accounts.
“All these drivers have been disqualified and can no longer use Uber,” Joe Sullivan, the company's chief security officer, told L.A. Weekly.
The drivers include one registered sex offender and two convicted of assault. One was charged with murder in the 1990s, though he was acquitted. The drivers were among more than 1,000 who were stopped and cited at LAX over the last two years by airport police officers.
Among the drivers was Brian Paul Haile, 41, who was sentenced to 13 years in prison for burglary in 2000. Haile was on his second strike, having earlier been convicted for assault with a firearm, hit-and-run, DUI and numerous drug charges.
Given his violent history, Haile would not have been allowed to drive a taxi. But because his conviction was 15 years ago, it was not picked up in Uber's background check. Uber uses private companies, such as Checkr and Hirease, to screen applicants using a name and Social Security number. Such companies are permitted to look for convictions only within the last seven years. When informed of Haile's history, Uber deactivated his account.
Another driver was Christopher Thomas Lang, 32, who was convicted in Wyoming of possession of child pornography. Lang is a registered sex offender in Wyoming and Montana, but his name did not appear in California's registry or in the national registry. This allowed him to pass Uber's background check. Uber disqualified him as a driver once informed of the issue.
Lang and Haile did not respond to efforts to reach them.
Another was Kevin Pouncil, 47, who was charged with murder, conspiracy and burglary in connection with a drug-related shooting in Reseda in 1997. Pouncil was acquitted of those charges but convicted of perjury for lying about having a second driver's license on an application for a driver's license. A third-striker with a previous conviction for assault and battery, he was sentenced to 25 years to life. After voters relaxed the three-strikes law, Pouncil applied for re-sentencing and was ultimately released.
Pouncil would not have been able to drive a taxi, due to his assault conviction. But because his convictions were more than seven years old, they were not flagged by Uber's background check. He was deactivated once Uber learned of his convictions.
Pouncil could not be reached for comment. But his attorney, Michael Zimbert, said that Pouncil had reformed in prison and deserved a second chance.
“He became a preacher,” Zimbert says. “They loved him up there.”
Told that Uber had removed him, Zimbert says, “I understand it at one level. I just don't agree with it. I don't agree with it at all. … There's gotta be a point where you let go of that.”
Two other drivers, Jose Puente and Azkanaz Babayan, had recent convictions for driving while intoxicated. At least one of those convictions occurred after the driver signed up for Uber. Sullivan said that Uber does periodic background checks on current drivers. Once Uber learned of those convictions, the drivers were deactivated. Efforts to reach them were unsuccessful.
Another driver was Joseph Melle, who was arrested in 2005 after allegedly leaving a lewd note in the lap of a teenage girl who was having lunch outside her high school. When Melle was arrested, officers found more notes and a loaded gun in his car, according to court records. Melle pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of possessing a concealed weapon in public. Reached by email, Melle said he had only driven for Uber for about 10 days as a “personal social experiment.” He said he has since left L.A. and is currently in India, and was not aware that Uber had deactivated him. He declined to comment on his criminal record.
Vahik Ghookasian, 63, was cited at the airport while driving a chartered limo for Uber Black. Ghookasian had been convicted of credit card fraud in 2011. He owned a flower shop in Glendale and used his customers' bank account information to get prepaid debit cards. This crime would disqualify Ghookasian from driving a taxi but not from driving a limo, which is regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission. Once Uber discovered that the rules for limo drivers were more lax, it began its own background checks on limo drivers, and Ghookasian was disqualified. He could not be reached for comment.
Christopher Smith, 43, was convicted of identity theft in 2007. He had previous convictions for hit-and-run, using a false ID and transportation of marijuana for sale. He subsequently violated his probation and was sentenced to two years in prison. He would not have been permitted to drive a taxi. Uber, once informed of his background, deactivated his account. He could not be reached for comment.
Mayor Garcetti has been a strong supporter of Uber, and has pushed to let Uber operate at the airport. Garcetti has called for a “level playing field” between taxis and ride-hailing companies, but he has not supported fingerprint-based checks for their drivers. Only New York has succeeded in requiring that Uber drivers undergo fingerprint checks.
The PUC controls ride-hailing regulation in California, so the only chance L.A. has to set its own rules is at LAX, which it governs. But City Councilman Paul Koretz says Uber has a history of flouting even minimal regulations.
“Their general approach is, 'We'll do whatever the heck we want,'” Koretz says.
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