Austin leaders spent months arguing with Uber and Lyft over the best way to determine the criminal backgrounds of people wanting to drive for the ride-hailing services. Voters settled that dispute in May by upholding the city’s fingerprinting requirement.
But what happens when that background check turns up an offense in a prospective driver’s past?
As part of a revamping of the rules for all kinds of drivers-for-hire, including taxi and shuttle drivers, the City Council in June drew a firm line. It passed a law listing various criminal convictions that, no matter when they occurred, disqualified a driver from getting a city permit. Another list of crimes barred a driver if the offense had occurred within the past seven years.
No excuses. No appeal. Gone was the discretion the city transportation staff once had to look at the total picture of a person’s background and grant a permit in spite of an old conviction.
Last week, confronted with several wrenching examples of what that no-tolerance policy could mean, the City Council reversed course. It approved a measure by Council Member Greg Casar that, effective immediately, allows applicants to appeal to the city’s Transportation Department if their permit was denied since June based on their criminal record.
The council approved the measure 10-0, with Council Member Sheri Gallo off the dais.
The city’s no-tolerance policy has thrown out of work some very good people based on crimes committed long ago in their youth or early adulthood, said Billy Carter, owner of Super Shuttle’s Austin franchise. Carter said if the city’s June law wasn’t changed to allow city staffers some discretion, he would lose as much as 8 percent of his driver corps as their permits come up for renewal.
“Some of these guys have been with me 10 years or more,” Carter said Friday. “These people are like family to us, they really are.”
The council in the next few months will consider whether to stick with that approach, which is similar to what existed with Austin taxi drivers before June, or develop some other alternative appeals process.
The June 16 change to Austin city law, making some crimes categorically disqualifying for a chauffeur’s permit, came after months of emotional debate about women’s safety in ride-hailing vehicles and taxis, the costly campaign waged by Lyft and Uber and those two services’ departure from Austin.
Appearing before the council on Thursday, however, Carter argued the new rules had taken an unintended toll. He fought back tears as he talked about employees suddenly without a livelihood.
“Some of the drivers made bad choices when they were young, but they lead different lives now,” he said. “If we lose these drivers, it’s Austin’s loss. Some of them are exactly who we want representing our city.”
Super Shuttle driver Michael Pettersen told the council that his disqualifying conviction came 30 years ago — he didn’t say what it was — but said he had moved to Austin, married 21 years ago, had children and stayed on the right side of the law.
“We’ve lived with the thought that I had redeemed myself in the eyes of society,” Pettersen said. But when his chauffeur’s permit came up for renewal, it was denied under the June law. “Thirty years of work, of living right, it didn’t seem to matter,” he said. “It seems grossly unfair.”
Without offering details on specific drivers, Carter cited examples involving convictions for drug possession, some of which fell into the felony category, and cases in which police were called on domestic disputes.
According to statistics provided to the council last week, the city Transportation Department has rejected 118 drivers’ permit requests this year for a conviction of one of the more serious offenses and denied 41 others for a lesser conviction that occurred within the past seven years.
Under Thursday’s council action, those denied a permit since June will be contacted by city staffers and told of their right to an appeal.
An additional 38 potential drivers’ permit applications are on hold because of pending criminal charges. It was unclear last week if the revised appeal policy would apply to that class of applicants.
Those 197 permit denials or deferrals amount to 2.2 percent of the 9,059 people now licensed to drive either for ride-hailing services (5,235) and other forms of vehicles for hire (3,824).
The council, in its action last week, told the city’s staff to consider “the nature and gravity of any offenses,” the length of time since the offense and the impact of any particular offense on the applicant’s ability to drive for hire.