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  1. Transportation

Uber, Lyft dispute value of fingerprinting drivers ahead of critical PTC vote

Published Nov. 8, 2016

TAMPA — Chicago police stopped an Uber driver in July because he wasn't wearing a seat belt.

They found he was carrying 24 grams of marijuana and a firearm, according to a published report, and he had a record of weapons-related offenses.

A Boston Uber driver was accused in August of raping a 16-year-old girl he first met as a passenger. He had earlier convictions for dealing drugs and assaulting a corrections officer, a television station learned.

Uber banned both drivers, but the cases have raised questions about the effectiveness of its background checks.

That issue is likely to be center stage again Wednesday when the Public Transportation Commission is set to vote on a temporary operating agreement for Uber and Lyft to do business legally in Hillsborough County.

The two rideshare giants arrived in Hillsborough in April 2014 but have ignored PTC regulations including a "Level II" fingerprint-based background check that taxicab drivers must pass.

Under the proposal. Uber and Lyft drivers will undergo an "enhanced" Level I background check — a statewide criminal records search combined with a search of federal court records, state and national sex offender databases, and the most-wanted lists compiled by the FBI, Interpol and the Drug Enforcement Administration.

The search would go back only seven years, instead of the lifetime search included in the Level II check.

PTC chairman Victor Crist, who negotiated the deal with Uber and Lyft, said he favors fingerprinting, but the deal would at least give the public some reassurance about who is behind the wheel. It also sets standards for insurance and annual vehicle inspections.

"If getting 90 percent of what we want is the sacrifice, it puts the riding public in a much safer position than they are now with nothing," said Crist, who is also a county commissioner.

But that compromise still leaves the traveling public at risk, contends PTC vice chairman David Pogorilich, a Temple Terrace City Council member.

He wants the agency to adopt strict new rules for the whole ridesharing industry.

"People can falsify anything; they can't falsify your fingerprint," he said.

Opinions on the merits of fingerprint background checks vary.

Kenneth E. Gray Jr., a lecturer on national security at the University of New Haven and a former FBI agent, said fingerprints are the only way an agency or employer can ensure the person who they are checking is the person sitting in front of them.

"A person can steal another person's identity and obtain employment under an assumed name," Gray said.

That is disputed by Tom Frazier, a former commissioner of the Baltimore Police Department who now works as a consultant. His clients include Lyft.

Prints are often smeared, making them unusable, he said. Also, some states fail to report prints to the FBI.

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The background check for Lyft drivers cross-references Social Security numbers against dozens of sources including utility bills, mortgage records and vehicle registrations.

"All of these things have to match," he said. "I think fingerprints are highly overrated. A lot of people in the FBI and the justice system would agree."

Uber officials point out that unlike a taxicab ride, their software creates an electronic record of every trip and the route taken. They conduct a background check that examines state and local court records, state and national sex offender registries, motor vehicle records and a national terrorist watch list.

In September, Uber added another security measure, requiring drivers to randomly submit "selfies" that are compared against the profile it has on file.

Uber's opposition to fingerprinting has been mostly nationwide. It argues that it will deter drivers from applying and that it takes too long to conduct.

Both Uber and Lyft abandoned the lucrative Austin, Texas, market because voters there made fingerprinting mandatory in a May referendum.

Twelve other rideshare companies have filled the vacuum left by their departure, said officials from Austin's transportation department.

Fingerprint background checks there cost $37 and results arrive within five business days.

More than 40 drivers who applied have been denied a permit based on those background checks since June 27.

The PTC has come under pressure from local elected leaders, including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who say residents want the convenience and low cost of ridesharing compared to taxicabs.

County Commissioner Al Higinbotham, who serves on the PTC board, said the state law that established the agency requires that they fingerprint drivers.

"We have to follow that path from state law," Higinbotham said. "I still believe fingerprints are the most effective way to run a background check."

Contact Christopher O'Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.

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