For two months after he was accused of raping a passenger, an Austin man continued to pick up passengers for at least one major ride-hailing company in Central Texas.
Osmani Limonta Diaz, 40, was driving for local ride-hailing nonprofit RideAustin when he was accused of raping a female passenger in the back of his blue Dodge Dart on June 10. Diaz was arrested on a sexual assault charge Oct. 13.
When police made RideAustin aware of the allegations against Diaz within a few weeks of the alleged incident, RideAustin “deactivated (the driver) from the RideAustin platform as well as proactively notified the other rideshare platforms that the driver was known to work,” the nonprofit said on Oct. 16.
Diaz, however, continued to drive for ride-hailing company Lyft until early August and remained registered as an active driver for Lyft until about Oct. 16, when the rape allegations became public, according to Lyft spokesman Scott Coriell.
Coriell said Lyft was never told about the allegations against Diaz during the investigation. The company only learned of the allegations through media reports when Diaz was formally charged, he said.
“These allegations are incredibly disturbing,” Coriell said in an email to the American-Statesman on Oct. 25. “The first we were made aware of this incident was last week, at which time we immediately deactivated the driver from the Lyft platform. While this incident did not occur on the Lyft platform, we stand ready to assist law enforcement.”
Diaz’s case points to a safety concern some critics have raised about the ride-hailing industry: Even after drivers clear pre-employment background checks, how do ride-hailing companies know when an active driver has been accused of a crime?
It’s unclear how many passengers Diaz might have picked up between the time the allegations were made against him and when formal charges were filed.
Diaz also previously drove for ride-hailing service Uber. Uber spokeswoman Kayla Whaling declined to give any other details about when Diaz drove for the company. Whaling said that Austin police contacted Uber officials while investigating the allegations against Diaz, and she said the company “immediately removed the former driver’s access to the app.”
Whaling declined to say when police contacted Uber and did not answer questions about whether RideAustin contacted the company.
Advocates raise concern
Sexual assault allegations involving ride-hailing companies are not rare. From June 21 to Sept. 22 of this year, 92 drivers from Uber and Lyft — the largest ride-hailing companies — were accused of sexual assault, according to Who’s Driving You, a public safety organization that analyzes news reports involving ride-hailing drivers.
It is worrisome that Diaz continued to drive after he was accused of rape, potentially putting other people in danger, said Rose Luna, deputy director at the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault.
Luna said the case also speaks to a larger problem.
“We’re just as frustrated with this situation as we are frustrated with the college football player accused of sexual assault that continues to play football because it’s just the way our criminal justice system is set up,” Luna said. “What matters is that these things happen. Those perpetrators are able to continue to live their lives and (most victims) don’t report it.
“We cannot change the criminal justice system. What we do have more control over is that folks understand that this is the reality.”
Luna advises that people never ride alone “whether you’re out and about and go for a rideshare, or hop into a car with a friend’s friend, because the risk is there.”
Court records show Diaz is being held at the Travis County Jail on $40,000 bail. Diaz has denied the allegations against him, an arrest affidavit shows. His next court date is set for Dec. 1.
Diaz is accused of assaulting an Austin woman on June 10 after he drove her to her home, according to the affidavit.
After the attack, the affidavit says, the woman stumbled into her home and through tears told her brother what had happened. He called 911 after looking out the door and seeing no one there, according to the affidavit.
RideAustin CEO Andy Tryba said he learned of the allegations against Diaz from an Austin police detective about two to three weeks after the alleged incident. Austin police also subpoenaed RideAustin for information on Diaz during their investigation, according to the affidavit.
Tryba said RideAustin temporarily suspended Diaz at the time, and it then permanently terminated him after charges were brought on Oct. 13 after investigators said that Diaz’s DNA matched DNA found on the woman’s body.
RideAustin said Diaz passed fingerprint- and Social Security number-based background checks prior to becoming a driver for the company.
RideAustin’s fingerprint background checks, which pass through criminal history records collected by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, are more comprehensive than checks performed by some ride-hailing firms such as Uber and Lyft.
Tryba said after he became aware of the allegations against Diaz, he contacted other ride-hailing companies that operate in Austin to inform them. Ride-hailing drivers often drive for multiple companies to boost their chances of picking up rides.
Tryba declined to tell the American-Statesman which companies he contacted.
In addition to Lyft and Uber, the American-Statesman also contacted ride-hailing companies Fasten, GetMe and Wingz, all of which operate in the Austin metro area.
Fasten declined to answer questions about Diaz, and GetMe could not be reached for comment.
Wingz officials said their records show Diaz never worked for the company.
Austin police Sgt. Martina St. Louis, with the department’s sex crimes unit, said “every pebble that needed to be turned was turned” regarding the case.
Citing an ongoing investigation, St. Louis declined to say whether police contacted ride-hailing companies other than RideAustin while investigating the allegations against Diaz.
“When we have a suspect, are we going to run involvement checks to see what their past history is? Yes,” St. Louis said. “It depends what we are presented with. The case gets worked where the evidence leads us to.”
‘Balancing the rights’
It’s typical for law enforcement to look into a person’s work history when conducting a criminal investigation, but police officials also have to be cautious about how they do that until charges are brought and a conviction is made, said Howard Williams, a criminal justice lecturer at Texas State University and former police chief of San Marcos.
Williams said in a case like Diaz’s, police have to collect information while remaining careful about what they tell employers because the suspect could be innocent.
“It’s a matter of balancing the rights of the victim, of society and the rights of those being accused,” Williams said. “This sort of thing happens all of the time. A person goes about their normal life until there is a charge. The legal process is going to assume you’re innocent until you are proven guilty.”
That applies even if police officials are concerned a suspect could repeat an offense while an investigation is ongoing, Williams said.
“It’s one of the costs of living in a free society,” he said.
But maintaining that balance has become harder as technology has evolved, Williams said. When ride-hailing drivers used to only work for taxi companies, their jobs were usually held through one taxi company that filed their information through the city, so it was easier to track, Williams said.
Times have changed, and now it’s not unusual for a driver to work for multiple companies.
“It’s one of the costs associated with that progress,” Williams said. “Modern technology has made life sometimes very difficult for us in law enforcement.”
Update: On March 30, 2018, a Travis County jury sentenced Osmani Limonta Diaz to 11 years in prison on a conviction of sexual assault.