New Jersey already legally mandates fingerprint background checks for Little League coaches, charter school trustees, mortgage brokers, school bus drivers, blackjack dealers and private eyes.
Now, a pitched battle among lobbyists and lawmakers is raging over whether to add one more group: drivers for mobile-app ride-hailing companies like Uber Technologies and Lyft.
As the services have grown, some passengers have reported assaults amid media accounts of drivers with criminal histories. Concern flared after an Uber driver who prosecutors later said had no criminal record was charged in the shooting deaths of six people in Michigan.
The two companies have strenuously objected to the use of fingerprints for their drivers — to the point of pulling out of places like Austin, Texas, earlier this year. They argue that using fingerprints as a background check is an inherently flawed, inaccurate and potentially discriminatory system.
They have buttressed their efforts with top-shelf lobbyists. Records show that Uber spent $140,500 last year in New Jersey on three lobbying firms, including CLB Partners, ranked No. 5 among the top fee-generating firms in 2015, and Optimus Partners, ranked No. 6.
Both Uber and Lyft report doing brisk business in New Jersey. Uber, for example, says it logged 9.5 million rides since starting in the state in November 2013, and has 13,000 drivers.
“The FBI background-check systems and the state background-check systems are completely flawed,” said Jason Morris, an executive with SterlingBackCheck, who testified in the state Senate on behalf of Lyft. “The records are old. … It’s outdated.”
But taxicab and limousine drivers say their counterparts at Uber and Lyft should be subject to the same kind of stringent background check they undergo.
“We believe background checks without fingerprints will allow people who have been charged with murder, sexual assaults and other crimes to avoid detection,” said Jason Sharenow, president of the New Jersey Limousine Drivers Association.
Yearlong N.J. debate
The debate over fingerprint background checks for ride-sharing services has echoed in statehouses across the county. Currently, 31 states have some form of regulation, but none requires fingerprinting. Several cities, however, have adopted that requirement, including New York City, where Uber has continued to operate.
New Jersey lawmakers have been debating potential regulations for more than a year.
The two bills currently making their way through the Legislature are unique in that they would leave the question of fingerprinting up to the attorney general (the Senate version) or the state police (the Assembly version).
Lobbyists and consultants for Uber and Lyft point to a U.S. Department of Justice audit in 2014 that they say showed that fingerprint checks can be misleading. The study found that less than 70 percent of the arrest records in 26 states matched up with any information on the outcome of those arrests or convictions.
They’ve also cited the opinion of former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, whose law firm was hired by Uber as an adviser on security issues. Holder has argued that such discrepancies make fingerprint checks discriminatory against members of minority groups.
“Because of these issues with law-enforcement databases, a fingerprint-based check can prevent people from getting a job even if they were never found guilty of a crime,” Holder wrote in a June 2 letter to state Sen. Paul Sarlo, D-Wood-Ridge, one of the co-sponsors of the Senate bill.
Uber, Lyft and their supporters tout systems that rely instead on computer searches of databases for biographical details, methods developed in recent years that look at everything from credit histories, prison records and court judgments to sex-offender registries.
Thomas Frazier, a former Baltimore police commissioner and a consultant for Lyft, said about 30 percent of the fingerprints that the FBI gets from local law enforcement do not meet the bureau’s standard because of smudge marks or other imperfection.
Frazier said the computer database searches are far more reliable.
“I’ve had them do it to me and I tell you they knew more about me than I knew about myself,” he said. “It is stunning to find out the amount of information that those databases hold.”
To highlight discrepancies the company says it has with fingerprints as the basis for background checks, Uber recently claimed that it rejected driver applications from 62 people who had previously been licensed as limousine drivers in New Jersey after undergoing a fingerprint check.
The company said its own computer-based search found limo drivers with records for criminal sexual contact, assault, driving without a license and domestic battery, said Uber spokesman Craig Ewer.
“That’s almost 8 percent of all commercial or limo New Jersey drivers who applied to drive with Uber,” Ewer said. “These drivers had passed the exact same state fingerprinting check included in [the] Assembly bill.”
Advocates for fingerprinting, however, have their own studies and examples of flaws in computer-based background searches.
Dave Sutton, a spokesman for “Who’s Driving You,” a public campaign funded by the Taxi, Limousine and Paratransit Association, pointed to a lawsuit filed by prosecutors in San Francisco and Los Angeles against Uber and Lyft.
The suit alleged that 25 drivers who had passed Uber’s background check were found to have criminal histories. Uber settled the lawsuit in April and agreed to pay $25 million. Lyft settled for a lesser amount in December 2014.
Both companies are barred from making “untrue statements or misleading statements about their background checks,” according to the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office.
A trade group for identification technology companies, the International Biometrics & Identity Association, challenged the methodology of the background checks used by the ride-hailing app services. The trade group said “name-based” background checks are inherently vulnerable to people who use aliases or stolen identities, or who deliberately misspell their name or give a wrong date of birth.
Sutton cited the report, released last month, that also touts advances made in electronic fingerprint technology instead of ink and paper prints that can be smudged.
Ewer said Uber supports Sarlo’s bill, which, as a compromise, would leave it up to the attorney general to decide if fingerprinting is necessary for all background checks for drivers.
But Uber officials say their bottom line remains the same: Fingerprinting will force the company to leave the state.
If that happens, other companies say they are willing to fill the vacuum.
Former Assemblyman-turned-lobbyist Scott Rudder testified that one of his clients, NJRide, plans to launch its own ridesharing app this summer and is willing to let its drivers be fingerprinted.
“Yes, Uber [and] Lyft has set the standard for ride passenger services,” Rudder told lawmakers. “But so did MySpace for social media … but you no longer hear about MySpace any more. Facebook is here.”