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Uber Is About to Let Former Criminals Become Drivers, and That's Just Fine With SF's Top Cop

Though the DA's still concerned about certain offenders slipping through the cracks.

 

Updated: January 15, 2015

In a move that has pleased advocates for ex-criminal offenders, Uber is opening its car doors to prospective drivers who have minor, nonviolent crimes in their past. Offenses like check fraud or drug possession for personal use will no longer disqualify would-be Uber drivers, who have the option to get certain felony offenses reclassified as misdemeanors under Prop. 47. That’s a huge deal for anyone who has done jail time and faces obstacles finding work on the outside. But it also raises some sticky questions for a company that’s at this very minute mired in a lawsuit over background checks that are allegedly looser than Uber claims.

That's right: Just as Uber is defending itself against a lawsuit by the cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles concerning background checks that let sex offenders and even a murderer slip through, it’s also loosening its standards for petty criminals. But that seeming contradiction doesn't bother district attorney George Gascón, a man of many contradictions himself. As Max Szabo, spokesperson for the DA’s office, points out, Uber’s decision is an instance of Prop. 47 doing what it was designed to do: “These are low-level offenders who, by virtue of their crimes having been classified as felonies, had a difficult time re-entering the workforce,” he says. “Having a job is one of the most important factors to prevent someone from reoffending. We think it’s important that these folks get a second chance.” 

Szabo's boss Gascón, you may remember, was a major proponent of Prop. 47. When it passed in 2014, the initiative lessened criminal charges for some nonviolent crimes, dropping offenses such as petty theft and drug possession from felonies down to misdemeanors. Ex-offenders can also get their records amended to reflect their crimes’ new misdemeanor status—and Uber is spreading the word to drivers it once rejected to explain that this step is available to them. (A history of driving-related offenses does still disqualify drivers, though.)

Gascón has accused Uber of misleading consumers about the quality of its security screenings, pointing to "systemic failures" in the background checks, which go back only seven years—raising the possibility that a violent offender convicted more than seven years ago could slip through. (In contrast, the SFMTA can see the entire criminal history of a prospective cab driver.) The city's suit challenges Uber's claim that its screenings are "industry leading," though the company doesn't check fingerprints as cab companies do. Gascón has frequently pointed out that this omission means that riders are left in the dark about the risk of, say, a driver who assumes another identity to clear the security screening. The suit also argues that sex offenders can slip through the screening if they're among the 30,000 Californians who have gotten their names expunged from the Megan's Law database of sex offenders (and if their convictions are older than seven years). 

Could Gascón's comfort level with putting one category of ex-criminal behind the wheel of an Uber lead to problems down the line? It's at least theoretically possible that someone with a recent minor drug charge and an eight-year-old violent offense now qualifies, putting passengers potentially at risk. Then again, that hypothetical disaster is on Uber, not Gascón. It is possible to help non-dangerous former criminals while keeping out violent offenders. "We see them as completely separate," Szabo says of the minor offenders who benefit from Prop. 47 and the felonious Uber drivers dredged up by the city's consumer-protection lawsuit. As far as the city sees it, Uber's responsibility to accurately represent its security process—especially where would-be drivers with serious criminal histories come in—is unchanged. 

 

Update, January 15, 2015: The original version of this story incorrectly suggested that the city's lawsuit against Uber focuses on the allegedly criminal backgrounds of some drivers. In fact, the suit centers on the claims Uber makes about the soundness of its security checks, among other consumer concerns. The story has been updated to reflect this fact. 

A spokesperson for Uber sent us the following statement: “While we agree with the district attorneys that safety is a priority, we disagree that the Livescan process used by taxi companies is an inherently better system for screening drivers than our background checks. The reality is that neither is 100% foolproof—as we discovered last year when putting hundreds of people through our checks who identified themselves as taxi drivers. That process uncovered convictions for DUI, rape, attempted murder, child abuse and violence. In addition, Livescan includes people who have been arrested but not always charged or convicted, which can discriminate against minorities. We look forward to resolving this issue, just as the DAs settled an almost identical case with Lyft last year for $250,000. Meanwhile we continue to work on improving safety for riders and drivers before, during and after the trip.”

 

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