DAs Take on Uber in Scathing Amended Suit

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Uber’s background checks failed to weed out more than two dozen drivers with criminal records – including registered sex offenders, a kidnapper, burglars, and a convicted murderer – prosecutors say in state court.
     San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon and Los Angeles DA Jackie Lacey filed a 62-page amended complaint on Wednesday detailing the criminal histories of 25 Uber drivers who have given thousands of rides to customers in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
     The original civil suit , filed in December, claimed that Uber misleads users about its background check process for drivers and alleges that it illegally charges customers for rides to and from airports.
     The amended complaint says that the ride-hailing upstart unfairly touts its rigorous background checks, when in reality Uber does not even put its drivers through the same fingerprinting process required of California taxi drivers.
     Prosecutors say they learned that Uber drivers had criminal histories after those drivers were cited for an illegal airport ride or street hail.
     In one case, it was discovered that an Uber driver was convicted in 1982 of second-degree murder in Los Angeles. He was paroled in 2008 and applied to drive with Uber under a different name than the one on his criminal record, according to the complaint.
     Another driver convicted in 1999 of committing lewd or lascivious acts on a child under 14 had given more than 5,500 rides to Uber passengers, “including unaccompanied children,” the complaint says.
     Uber also employed drivers with felony convictions for kidnapping for ransom with a firearm, assault with a firearm, grand theft and fraud, robbery, identity theft, burglary, and sale of methamphetamine, the district attorneys say.
     Five drivers were also found to have misdemeanor drunk driving convictions within the last seven years, according to the complaint.
     Uber has since backed off of its claims of performing “industry-leading” background checks, instead stating that the company’s safety is “constantly improving.” It also eliminated its statement of “background checks you can trust.”
     The company’s new safety message, posted as a blog on its website, says that “every system of background checks that is available today has its flaws,” but adds “we believe that the procedure used by Uber and other TNCs stack up well against the alternatives in terms of safety – while not disadvantaging people who may have been arrested but never charged.”
     Uber admits its system is “not 100 percent accurate.”
     Prosecutors say the company “has strengthened its impression that it does everything it can to ensure its customers’ safety by incorporating specific misrepresentations of fact into the very impressive sounding laundry-list of process descriptions and disqualification criteria that Uber communicates to the public.”
     Among these misrepresentations are claims that Uber’s background-check process is “often more rigorous than what is required to become a taxi driver,” that its background checks “go back as far as the law allows,” and that the process includes a “lifetime” disqualification for sex offenders.
     In reality, Uber does not use fingerprint identification, so the company cannot ensure that the information it obtains from a background check actually pertains to the applicant, the complaint says.
     Instead of using fingerprints, Uber relies on its drivers to submit personal identifiers online. The information is then sent to a private vendor for a background check.
     “Uber’s process cannot ensure that the information in the background check report is actually associated with the applicant since it does not use a unique biometric identifier such as a fingerprint,” the prosecutors say.
     Using a fingerprint system such as Live Scan, which is used by many taxi regulators in California, would ensure that “a registered sex offender could not use his law-abiding brother’s identification information to become an Uber driver, and that a convicted burglar could not borrow his cousin’s identification information to become an Uber driver in order to case the empty homes of customers he takes to the airport,” the complaint says.
     Uber defended its own background-check system by stating on its website that the Live Scan process relies on databases that include arrest records for people who were never charged with or convicted of crimes and, therefore, flags innocent people and impacts minorities in particular.
     The district attorneys say these representations are misleading and also irrelevant because Uber cannot by law disqualify drivers based on arrests that did not result in convictions.
     Many of the felony convictions cited in the complaint were from more than seven years ago, which is as far back as Uber’s background checks go. The company claims that state or federal law bars it from considering convictions older than seven years.
     But federal law allows criminal convictions to be reported indefinitely, and the Fair Credit Reporting Act cited by Uber does not have time limitations on reporting criminal convictions for employment purposes, prosecutors say.
     Rather, California law allows background-check providers to report older crimes where the person has been paroled or released in the last seven years, according to the complaint.
     Uber also relies on a sex offender registry that does not list all registered sex offenders, the complaint states, noting that more than 30,000 registered sex offenders whose convictions are more than seven years old are omitted from the registry.
     “This means, for example, that Uber’s background check process will NEVER disqualify a registered sex offender who applies to become an Uber driver in 2015 who was convicted in 2007 for molesting his daughter or for committing felony sexual battery on a stranger, so long as the applicant had successfully petitioned to have his name removed from the public website,” prosecutors say. (Emphasis in original.)
     Uber says on its website that it understands “that there are strongly held views about the rehabilitation of offenders,” and cites the California Legislature’s decision that seven years “strikes the right balance” between rider safety and giving ex-offenders a chance rebuild their lives.
     The company also pointed out that last year it rejected 600 drivers who previously worked as taxi drivers in San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco – cities that require taxi drivers to go through the Live Scan process – after they failed Uber’s background check.
     “These drivers were not given access to Uber’s platform, but may continue transporting passengers by taxi,” Uber said. “Their records included convictions for sex offenses or rape (19 potential drivers), DUIs (36 potential drivers), child endangerment or abuse (seven potential drivers), and assault or battery (51 potential drivers).”
     The district attorneys already settled a similar lawsuit last year with Lyft, an Uber competitor. Lyft agreed to pay $500,000 in civil penalties.
     California legislators proposed new laws that would have required fingerprint background checks for Uber and Lyft drivers, but both companies lobbied against the laws and they failed to pass.
     “At the same time Uber was stating that it is ‘working diligently to ensure we’re doing everything we can to make Uber the safest experience on the road,’ it was instead working diligently to ensure it was doing everything it could to successfully defeat a bill pending in the California legislature that would have actually made Uber safer for its customers and the public,” the complaint states.
     The district attorneys seek a permanent injunction and civil penalties.

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