The L.A. County District Attorney's office took Uber to court this week.
A Superior Court civil lawsuit alleges that the ride-share company misrepresents its driver background checks and thus violates California business and professions codes. The filing also claims that Uber illegally picks up and drops off passengers at LAX while charging fees that prosecutors say are not legit.
“We don't want the consumer to believe they do the ultimate background checks” on drivers, D.A. Jackie Lacey told us. “They don't.”
The suit is a joint filing by the district attorneys of L.A. County and San Francisco. It seeks a permanent injunction against the alleged practices by Uber.
Both offices settled with Lyft after accusing that ride-share app of similar violations. Lacey says that Lyft agreed to stop exaggerating its background checks through advertising. Also as part of the settlement, Lyft said it would stop doing business at California airports without their permission.
Uber spokeswoman Eva Behrend sent us this statement in response to the suit:
Californians and California lawmakers all agree—Uber is an integral, safe, and established part of the transportation ecosystem in the Golden State. Uber has met with the District Attorneys to address their concerns regarding airport operations, the uberPOOL product, background checks, and operation of the app. We will continue to engage in discussions with the District Attorneys.
Lacey said that prosecutors spoke to Uber and that “they said, 'We're not going to comply.'”
The suit claims that Uber's previous advertising, including a statement that the company was “setting the strictest safety standards possible,” and that its background checks used “industry-leading standards” that one company rep said are “often more rigorous than what is required to become a taxi driver” are lies.
“Uber continues to put consumers at risk by misleading the public about the background checks of its drivers …,” Lacey stated.
While taxi drivers in California's biggest cities, including Los Angeles and S.F., must undergo Live Scan background checks that are based on fingerprinting and the FBI's database, Uber does not require fingerprinting.
That means, according to Lacey, that anyone could claim to be someone they aren't.
Here's one example the suit uses: You're a driver with a criminal record whose younger brother has a clean slate. You could use your brother's California drivers license and enter his information online to become an Uber driver without the company ever meeting you, prosecutors claimed.
The suit mentions an NBC Los Angeles investigative report in which a woman on felony probation for threatening to kill or injure someone was able to pass Uber's background check.
“Without fingerprinting there's no way to know if the person picking you up has a DUI conviction, a speeding conviction, reckless driving,” Lacey says. “I'd want to know.”
The suit also alleges that Uber, through its non-black-car services such as UberX, picks up and drops off LAX travelers without the permission of the airport and charges a subsequently unjustified $4 “airport fee” that doesn't go to taxpayer-run LAX.
The filing also has a problem with Uber's $1 “safe rides fee,” since, as you can see above, the prosecutors believe the app's background checks are subpar.
If Uber loses this one it could be liable not only for $2,500 for each incident of alleged false advertising, but for $2,500 fines for each time it allegedly uses an airport like LAX or San Francisco International illegally, Lacey said. “That could add up to millions of dollars,” she said.
The D.A. said she doesn't want Uber to go away, however.
“I want to make sure it's clear the District Attorney's office is not out to destroy these businesses,” she told us. “We encourage innovation. They have a place in our society. But they have to comply with the law.”