Popular ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft will plead their case Thursday before the Maryland Public Service Commission that they should not be required to fingerprint drivers.
Fingerprinting is a standard part of the background check process for taxicab drivers and many other professionals licensed by the state. But Uber and Lyft argue fingerprint-based background checks are less accurate than their own private systems and discriminate against minorities who are more likely to be in the criminal record system following an arrest, even if never convicted.
Under a state law passed in 2015, the companies are required to begin background checking drivers Dec. 15 using the fingerprint database maintained by the state and the FBI, unless they prove their approach is equally effective. Both companies filed separate petitions with the state Public Service Commission, which regulates ridesharing companies, for permission to continue doing background checks their way.
Uber has said it will pull out of Maryland if fingerprinting is enforced. Lyft has not said it would withdraw, but pointed out that it does not operate in any market where fingerprinting is required except New York City.
The debate comes against a backdrop of headline-grabbing incidents involving ride-share drivers — including here in Maryland — and growing concern about rider safety. In October, an Uber driver in Frederick was charged with sexually assaulting a 14-year-old girl he picked up. An Uber driver in Gaithersburg was arrested in May after he tried to shoot police officers with a homemade gun.
Critics point to these incidents and others around the country as evidence that private background checks aren't good enough.
"We're seeing a lot of people hurt by so-called part-time drivers," said Dave Sutton, a spokesman for Who's Driving You?, an organization working on behalf of the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association to push for greater regulation of ride-hailing companies.
During the Public Service Commission hearing, scheduled to run into next week, Uber and Lyft plan to call a long list of criminal justice experts to make the case that fingerprinting is unnecessarily onerous for people seeking part-time work and could unfairly block some from employment while doing little to improve safety for customers.
"Fingerprinting is a decades-old technology with significant limitations. By relying on incomplete federal data and outdated arrest records, fingerprinting disproportionately disadvantages minority communities," said Adrian Durbin, a spokesman for Lyft. "In contrast, the modern background check process we use in Maryland is comprehensive and rigorous, pulling data directly from national and local court databases that are up-to-date while still encouraging part-time drivers, who make up the vast majority of our Maryland community, to drive with Lyft."
The commission staff, which was tasked with reviewing the proposals and evaluating them against the state's method, said it does not think Uber's and Lyft's commercial background checks are as comprehensive and accurate as the state's standard for taxicab drivers.
Uber and Lyft work with private companies to run names, Social Security numbers, driver's license numbers and other personal information provided by applicants through crime databases, sex offender registries and Social Security records. The process involves in-person trips to courthouses to double-check records.
The commission staff cited three main concerns about that approach. Unlike fingerprinting, it does not address applicants who provide false information, it may not capture older offenses and it doesn't provide automatic updates, said Christopher T. Koermer, director of the commission's transportation division, in written testimony.
Maryland's Criminal Justice Information System is the central repository for all criminal record information, including arrests, acquittals, convictions and sentences. It is fed by criminal justice units throughout the state and sends updates to licensing agencies — including the public service commission — when a new incident is recorded for someone licensed by the state.
Koermer also took aim at the argument that drivers should not have to be fingerprinted because they're part time. Doctors, nurses, day care and elder care providers, airport workers, teachers and bus drivers all must be fingerprinted — regardless of whether they work full time or part time.
"It is the nature of the profession that makes a fingerprint necessary, not the amount of time spent in that profession," Koermer said in written testimony.
But Uber and Lyft argue fingerprint databases are an incomplete picture of an applicant's criminal history.
Fingerprints aren't always taken when someone is arrested, which means the databases could be missing criminal records. What's more, they say, records are not always updated when a case is dismissed or charges are dropped.
"Based on my experience as a local and federal prosecutor, and as a criminal defense attorney, it is clear that government repository rap sheets frequently do not provide a comprehensive or accurate record of an individual's criminal history, particularly when compared with court records," said Glenn F. Ivey, a former State's Attorney for Prince George's County, in written testimony submitted on behalf of Uber.
"Thus, using these rap sheets will very likely lead to inaccurate results, which will be especially unfair for minority applicants," Ivey said in written testimony.
Fingerprinting hasn't hurt diversity among Baltimore taxicab drivers, said Dwight Kines, vice president for Transdev on Demand, which operates Checker and Yellow Cab in Baltimore. Transdev has about 600 drivers in Baltimore, about 570 of whom would be considered minorities, he said.
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"It sure hasn't kept us from hiring minorities at all," Kines said.
The vast majority of states and cities where Uber and Lyft operate have state or local laws that accept their background check process, or don't have rules specifically governing the issue.
But as incidents involving drivers continue to grab headlines, more are considering tighter regulations.
In June, Chicago delayed implementing legislation that would have required fingerprinting while it studies the issue. In Texas, Austin and Houston both require fingerprinting, but neither Uber nor Lyft operate in Austin. Uber operates in Houston but has said it will leave if the requirement is not changed.
Uber's general manager for Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia said the company hopes to convince state regulators that its background checks sufficiently protect riders' safety.
"For more than two years, Uber has helped facilitate millions of reliable rides throughout the State of Maryland and provided tens of thousands of residents with flexible work opportunities," said Tom Hayes, the Uber official, in a statement. "We look forward to discussing this record with our partners at the Public Service Commission and demonstrating our ongoing commitment to public safety, economic opportunity, and expanded access to transportation options for Marylanders."