Uber background checks missed drivers’ criminal records, prosecutors say

Among the drivers in Uber’s service were a convicted murder and a felon convicted of sex offenses against a minor, prosecutors charge.

Amid growing concerns over Uber passengers’ safety, prosecutors in California allege that the background checks the company conducts on drivers failed to weed out 25 drivers with criminal records, including convictions for murder, assault, sex offenses and child abuse.

The charges were included in an amended complaint filed Wednesday by the district attorneys of Los Angeles and San Francisco, the ride-hailing service’s hometown. The original lawsuit, filed in December, charged the startup with misleading consumers about their safety on the service and the quality of its driver background checks.

One of the Uber drivers highlighted in the amended complaint was convicted of second-degree murder in Los Angeles in 1982, prosecutors said. He was released on parole in 2008 after spending 26 years in prison. Prosecutors allege that a background check generated for Uber in 2014 failed to reveal the criminal history for the driver, who provided 1,168 rides.

Another background check failed to identify a felon convicted in 1999 of committing lewd or lascivious acts against a child under 14 or that he is a registered sex offender. The complaint alleges that the driver gave 5,679 rides to Uber passengers, “including unaccompanied children.”

“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 said in the complaint.

Since its launch six years ago, the ride-hailing service that pairs passengers with drivers via a smartphone app has grown from a San Francisco-based startup to a multinational service in 295 cities and 55 countries. But with that rapid growth has come criticism about how the company handles safety. Over the last year, Uber has been dogged by allegations of drivers assaulting, raping and kidnapping passengers.

In December, an Uber driver in India was accused of beating and raping a passenger, prompting officials to ban the service in the country’s capital of New Delhi. A couple of weeks later, a driver allegedly sexually assaulted and choked a young woman in Boston. A Philadelphia woman in March accused her Uber driver of rape, according to Philadelphia magazine, while other drivers have allegedly brandished knives and guns, and punched and beaten passengers.

The company puts all potential US drivers through commercial background checks, running candidates’ names through seven years of county and federal courthouse records, a multi-state criminal database, national sex offender registry, Social Security trace and motor vehicle records. Uber rejects anyone with a history of violent crimes, sexual offenses, gun-related violations or resisting arrest.

“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,” Uber said Wednesday in a statement. “The reality is that neither is 100 percent 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.”

The suit asks for a permanent injunction against Uber requiring the company to make changes to stop violating California law. The state is also asking for civil penalties for all of the alleged unlawful business practices and wants a refund given to all passengers who’ve paid “airport fee tolls” or “safe rides fees.”

Uber, Lyft and Sidecar, another San Francisco-based ride-sharing service, each received letters from the district attorneys in September outlining the officials’ concerns about their offerings. The three companies were given until October to respond.

While Uber didn’t comply with the district attorneys’ requests, Lyft opted to settle and pay $500,000 in civil penalties. Under the terms of the agreement, Lyft promised not to make misleading statements about how far back its background checks go or to compare its background checks to those conducted by taxi operators.

To address passenger safety concerns, Uber in March introduced a handful of new initiatives to improve passenger and driver safety. The company announced the creation of a permanent global Safety Advisory Board to review the company’s safety practices and Incident Response Teams in every region it operates in, to be on call 24 hours a day and investigate and respond to “serious safety concerns.”

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