Austin City Council calls for fingerprint checks, fees for Uber, Lyft

The Austin City Council, after a two-hour discussion about the efficacy of various types of background checks, overwhelmingly passed a resolution Thursday night to develop requirements for fingerprint-based criminal background checks for drivers with ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft.

The council also took the first step toward creating a fee for such transportation network companies, similar to what the local cab companies pay.

Neither measure is final yet. The council on Thursday directed staff to draw up an ordinance with those requirements, which would likely return for a final vote in November.

Uber and Lyft, who instead perform name-based background checks on prospective drivers, have fought against fingerprint check requirements across the country, and Lyft uniformly has declined to operate in cities that mandate them.

Austin already requires cab drivers to undergo fingerprint background checks.

Representatives for Uber and Lyft maintain that requiring fingerprint checks creates “friction” that substantially reduces their stable of drivers and hurts response time for customers. They also argue that such checks disproportionately and unfairly hurt people of color by focusing on arrest records rather than convictions.

Council Member Ann Kitchen, chairwoman of the council’s Mobility Committee and a staunch advocate of fingerprint-based checks, brought a new rhetorical weapon to the debate: Mike Lesko, deputy assistant director of the Texas Department of Public Safety and someone with a deep and technical involvement in background checks. Lesko was blunt in his assessment of which approach is best.

“The very most important thing is to have proper identification so you know who you’re actually talking about,” Lesko told the council. “That can only be done with fingerprint background checks. You can’t do it with name checks. … In the law enforcement community, we have seen that criminals have a tendency to lie. I know that comes as a shock.”

Lesko said that name-based checks of the sort that Uber and Lyft use can lead to “false positives,” meaning checks that wrongly report criminal entanglements for people with common names. Worse yet, he said, are the false negatives in which a person with a dangerous background somehow slips through the check.

Lesko said that the FBI, as a test, had done both fingerprint and name-based background checks on 690,000 people. In that analysis, 11.7 percent of those found to have had a criminal history through fingerprint checks didn’t show up as a problem in the name checks.

Debbee Hancock with Uber said in an email that the study was done in 1997, long before smartphones and other technology that might have improved name-based searches.

Adam Blinick, an Uber representative, said his company employs a “thorough, rigorous (background) process, much more rigorous than has just been described” by Lesko. The company, he said, employs a third-party company to check public records for arrests and convictions, going to every location where records indicate the person has lived.

Beyond that, Blinick said, the ride-hailing companies’ operating model contributes to safety because a rider can see the driver on their smartphone, and the driver’s cumulative rating by other riders, and the whole trip is recorded via GPS tracking.

Background checks, he said, are “only one part of a security regime. We are constantly collecting information about our driver-partners. I think we sometimes lose sight of the forest for the trees when we talk about background checks.”

The background check resolution passed Thursday on a 9-2 vote, with Council Members Don Zimmerman and Ellen Troxclair opposed. The measure also instructs city staff to study both kinds of background checks and offer a recommendation about what is best for the city.

The council, in a separate motion, voted unanimously to create an annual fee on ride-hailing companies — a first since the services began operating in Austin about 16 months ago. Under that resolution, also subject to change before a final vote next month, the companies would have the choice of paying 1 percent of their local gross revenue in a year, $450 for each driver working for them or a comparable amount based on the total miles of rides provided.

Representatives of Uber and Lyft, without being specific, have said they would accept some level of regulatory fee. But what the council approved Thursday, at least in concept, would force them to reveal their income in Austin, which the companies have resisted, or pay a set fee for each driver, many of whom provide rides only part-time. Uber, for one, has claimed to have 10,000 drivers in Austin. At $450, the same fee cab companies pay each year for each driver, Uber would owe $4.5 million a year.

That quandary led Zimmerman to propose the third option, a fee based on total miles driven.

As for which approach the companies might prefer, Kitchen said they were asked this quite some time ago and “we have gotten no definitive answer.”

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