Maryland has become the latest battleground in the fight between Uber, Lyft and government regulators who say the companies must subject their drivers to more thorough screening.
The state is seeking to become the nation’s first to require fingerprint-based background checks for ride-hailing drivers, and Uber is threatening to pull out if that happens — potentially disbanding a network of 30,000 drivers, thousands of whom serve the D.C. region.
“We will unfortunately be unable to continue operating in the State of Maryland if a waiver is not granted and drivers are forced to overcome additional barriers to work,” Tom Hayes, Uber’s regional general manager, said in a statement.
The comments followed three days of hearings last month on the issue conducted by the Maryland Public Service Commission, which regulates ride hailing in the state. The commission is expected to decide by Dec. 22 whether it will require the fingerprint-based tests.
Lyft has stopped short of threatening to leave but noted that New York City is the only other market it operates in that requires fingerprinting. An earlier statement from the company decried fingerprint checks as “decades-old technology with significant limitations.”
It was three days of tense and at times testy clashes between state regulators and industry “disrupters” who say the taxi industry and law enforcement agencies are decades behind in mechanisms for ensuring rider safety. The companies say fingerprint-based checks are a costly and time-consuming burden on drivers, and such measures disproportionately target minorities who are more likely to be wrongly flagged for offenses.
Witnesses at the hearings, meanwhile, said the ride-hailing companies’ screening methods — largely reliant on electronic sweeps of criminal databases — are inadequate at weeding out dangerous offenders who have committed sexual assaults and other violent crimes while signed up on the platforms.
“There are three major areas of concern,” Christopher T. Koermer, director of transportation for the Public Service Commission, said in hearing testimony. “[Uber’s] and Lyft’s processes for ensuring that the applicant is not providing false identifying information; . . . the limitations on the time period covered by a review of the applicant’s record; and . . . the lack of criminal activity updates.”
Maryland wouldn’t be the first market that Uber has left due to fingerprinting requirements. In May, both Uber and Lyft shut down operations in Austin over the issue, and Uber has threatened to pull out of Houston if the requirement isn’t reversed.
But leaving Maryland, which has three times as many drivers as Austin, would have ripple effects across multiple metropolitan areas, starving networks in Baltimore, Annapolis and the D.C. region.
Uber and Lyft conduct “name-based” background checks in Maryland through electronic services such as Checkr. While state regulations do not require follow-up screenings, the companies say they rescreen drivers at least once a year, reviewing criminal and motor-vehicle records, which could alert them to new offenses and convictions.
Maryland regulators are pushing for drivers to register through the state and be subject to “Livescan” criminal-records checks, which they say would alert officials to new arrests and convictions.
It would be a gargantuan undertaking for the state. There are about 8,000 for-hire and taxi drivers in Maryland, according to Koermer. The new regulations would add four times as many ride-hailing drivers to the state’s registry.
“If fingerprinting is held in place, the commission will ensure that we have adequate resources to carry that out,” Koermer said in an interview.
But Uber and Lyft contend services such as Checkr are as accurate — or more — than the background checks performed by the state, particularly the rap sheets produced through the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) Division. Witnesses at the hearings testified that state records accessible by fingerprint are not as comprehensive as proponents claim. They don’t include, for example, DUIs and out-of-state offenses, a particular concern for drivers in Maryland who often serve the District and Virginia as well. Rap sheets, witnesses said, also paint an incomplete portrait of a person’s criminal history and produce false positives that disproportionately target people of color.
Overall, “if you run a fingerprint search for an individual through CJIS, you have only a 51 percent chance of finding a particular arrest event with an accurate record of the final disposition for that event,” said Shawn D. Bushway, a professor of criminal justice and public administration and policy for the University at Albany of the State University of New York system, citing research on the records system.
“If you’re wrong half the time . . . that doesn’t seem like the best system to rely on there,” Glenn Ivey, former state’s attorney for Prince George’s County and a former assistant U.S. attorney in Washington, said in an interview.
Ivey, who is now in private practice, testified on behalf of Uber that it is “common that criminal record reports generated by CJIS and the FBI are neither comprehensive nor accurate.”
Proponents of fingerprinting contend that sexual predators and violent offenders have been approved to drive for Uber and Lyft because of their purported lax screening standards — including an Uber driver who was arrested on attempted-murder charges in May after he allegedly tried to shoot two police officers in Gaithersburg. Earlier this year, a 45-year-old Uber driver in Kalamazoo, Mich., was arrested on charges that he killed six people and injured two others in a four-hour rampage, and officials said he may have continued to pick up fares during the shooting spree. In October, the Baltimore Sun reported, an Uber driver in Frederick was charged with sexually assaulting a 14-year-old passenger.
It is not clear that fingerprint checks would have made a difference in any of the cases, but all were high-profile incidents that raised questions about how the company screens and monitors its drivers. In the Kalamazoo shootings, law enforcement officials said the assailant had no previous criminal record.
“These incidents again and again have pointed to Uber not conducting background checks that are keeping passengers safe,” said Dave Sutton, spokesman for ‘Who’s Driving You?’ — an initiative of the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association.
San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, who was part of a lawsuit filed in California alleging that Uber misled the public with claims it had “best in the industry” background checks, has said screenings that omit fingerprint scanning are “completely worthless.” Uber agreed to pay up to $25 million in penalties and stop hailing its background checks as superior to industry competitors in its advertising.
Uber’s witnesses testified at the Maryland hearings that fingerprint-based checks are not the gold standard hailed by supporters.
“I’ve yet to see a system at any state level where updates are in fact real-time,” said Boniface Idziak, former head of compliance and government relations for Checkr. “There may be a requirement for them to be real-time, but what I’ve seen in my own independent research is that there is often a lack of resource, a lack of technology, a lack of funding that actually makes that impossible.”
In an interview, Ivey pondered the case’s central question.
“Basically, is what Uber would use at least as good as what the fingerprint system would be?” he asked. “I think the answer’s clearly yes.”
The companies also argued that they are being unfairly targeted. Attorneys representing them at the hearing noted, for example, that 14 people were raped by New York City taxi drivers in 2015. They also point out that it took Maryland officials one year and two weeks to revoke the license of a taxi driver who was arrested on charges of drug possession and intent to distribute — hardly a real-time response.
Uber says it relies on a combination of its screenings, driver ratings and communication with police to monitor its drivers. A recent feature on its app also requires drivers to submit periodic selfies to verify their identity. But regulators said that while Uber has made progress in ensuring passenger safety, its safeguards fall short.
“They do a lot for providing additional public safety,” Koermer said in an interview. “But they don’t do enough with closing the shortfalls identified in staff’s testimony.”
As for the threat that Uber could leave, many find it hard to believe — especially at a time when Metro is seeking bids from ride-hailing networks to run some of its paratransit services in Maryland under a new program called Abilities-Ride. Many of the region’s residents also have turned to Uber and Lyft during Metro’s SafeTrack maintenance program.
“The bluff that they would leave rings so utterly hollow,” Sutton said. “If you just look at the potential Metro work alone, not only that but building inroads with Metro, I don’t believe it.”
Harold Cook, an Austin-based Democratic strategist who opposed Uber’s and Lyft’s campaign to overturn the fingerprinting requirement there, said there were naysayers in that city as well.
“We all thought it was a big bluff,” he said. “I will never again believe that Uber or Lyft are bluffing when they say they’re gonna leave the market.”