Ridesharing companies Uber and Lyft do not have to do fingerprint-based background checks of their drivers to continue operating in Maryland but will have to agree to additional reporting and safety provisions, state regulators said Thursday.
Other licensed professionals in the state, including taxicab drivers and medical providers, must have their fingerprints checked against state and FBI fingerprint databases. The General Assembly last year expanded that requirement to include drivers for ridesharing companies, unless the companies could show their own approaches to background checks are just as effective.
Both Uber and Lyft applied for waivers to the requirement from the Maryland Public Service Commission, arguing their own background checks are equally comprehensive.
The commission essentially accepted that argument, saying the companies' checks "involve extensive efforts to identify criminal history, are supplemented by ongoing safety protocols and updates, and include unique and emerging methods of authenticating the identity of drivers."
It also noted that "neither fingerprinting-based nor commercial background checks are completely comprehensive and accurate."
Ridesharing companies, which revolutionized the industry by connecting paying passengers and drivers through mobile apps, have challenged state regulatory regimes that traditionally focused on taxicabs. Uber had said it would pull out of Maryland if fingerprinting were required. Lyft had not threatened to withdraw, but had noted it doesn't operate in any markets where fingerprinting is required except New York City.
Both companies signaled they were ready to move forward in the state following Thursday's decision.
Tom Hayes, Uber's regional general manager, said the decision "ensures that tens of thousands of hard-working residents continue to have fair access" to the company's transportation services.
Lyft said in a statement that it "look[s] forward to growing Lyft in Maryland in 2017."
The commission agreed to waive the fingerprinting requirement if the companies accept other provisions — including rerunning their own background checks on all drivers annually, committing to auditing and accrediting by an arm of the National Association of Professional Background Screeners, and alerting regulators to any changes to their background check process.
The companies also will have to provide annual reports to regulators that include "information on safety-related complaints, changes to internal background check processes, driver deactivations and the total number of active drivers."
Dwight Kines, vice president for Transdev on Demand, which operates Checker and Yellow Cab in Baltimore, said he disagreed with the commission's decision. He added that "the public knows when they get into a cab or a traditional for-hire sedan, the drivers have been fingerprinted and are safer" than drivers who have not gone through such checks.
Dave Sutton, a spokesman for Who's Driving You?, an organization working on behalf of the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association, said his group was "disappointed Maryland hasn't chosen to require fingerprint background checks to protect passengers, but heartened to see incremental tightening in the requirements" imposed on the ridesharing companies.
Uber and Lyft currently rely on private companies to run applicant's names, Social Security numbers, driver's license numbers and other personal information provided by the applicants through criminal databases, sex offender registries and Social Security records. The companies have argued their methods are more accurate than the state method in determining suitability to work in the industry, in part because they discriminate less against minorities who are more likely to be in the criminal system following an arrest, even if never convicted.
The safety of Uber and Lyft's models for checking drivers has come under scrutiny after high-profile incidents nationally and in Maryland in which drivers have been accused of criminal activity. An Uber driver in Gaithersburg was arrested in May after he allegedly tried to shoot police officers with a homemade gun. In October, an Uber driver in Frederick was charged with sexually assaulting a 14-year-old girl he picked up.
The Public Service Commission's staff had raised questions about the companies' background check procedures, saying they do not account for applicants providing false information and may not capture older offenses. One of the new requirements imposed by the commission requires the companies to provide written certification that they have verified the identity of their drivers.
Uber and Lyft used criminal justice experts to make the case that fingerprinting is unnecessarily onerous, would not improve safety and could unfairly block some from employment.
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"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 Prince George's County state's attorney, 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.
A large majority of states and cities where Uber and Lyft operate accept their background check process, or don't have rules specifically governing the issue. However, some are reconsidering.
In June, Chicago delayed implementing legislation requiring fingerprinting to study the issue. The city of Austin, Texas, requires fingerprinting, but neither Uber nor Lyft operate there. Houston also requires fingerprinting, and Uber has said it will leave if the requirement isn't changed.