Since news broke earlier this month that a local Uber driver has been charged with sexually assaulting a passenger, things have been pretty frosty between the rideshare service and the City of Houston.
Duncan Eric Burton, a former Uber driver, has admitted to taking a blackout drunk passenger to his apartment, where he then orally, vaginally and anally raped the woman, according to a Houston police officer's affidavit filed in a Harris County court. City officials claim that Burton's arrest underscores two serious problems with the rideshare service's operations in Houston. It appears Uber's third party background check didn't catch that Burton was released from federal prison in 2012 and was on probation after serving 14 years for a felony drug charge, something that should have disqualified him under Uber's own policies. And COH officials point out that Burton was among the untold number of Uber drivers who still pick up passengers yet haven't registered with the city to undergo a fingerprint-based background check, which city officials insist is more rigorous than Uber's system and would have flagged Burton's criminal record.
Reacting to the news, Mayor Annise Parker told reporters, "It is inexcusable that Uber had a driver on the streets and tied to their app who was not registered with the city." Last week, Uber's Texas director Chris Nakutis sent Parker a letter saying the company takes the city's permitting process seriously.
Apparently that wasn't a good enough assurance. On Wednesday, Parker sent Uber a letter demanding the company come up with a plan to ensure all of its Houston drivers have gone through the city's vetting and permitting process. According to Parker's letter, she wants a plan on her desk by Friday. Or else.
"According to your letter, Uber understands that it is 'imperative for all Uber driver partners that operate in Houston to have a city permit,'" Parker wrote to Nakutis. "However, City of Houston enforcement personnel report that during routine enforcement activities around the city they frequently encounter Uber drivers, operating on the Uber platform, within the city limits, who are not licensed by the City. This is unacceptable and creates a substantial risk to the safety of the riding public in Houston."
Uber has complained that COH's process it too time-consuming and cumbersome for its drivers, most of whom use the service to make some extra money on the side. Under a city ordinance that went into effect last November, Uber drivers have to register with the city and undergo a municipal warrant check, physical and drug test, a customer service training course, and a fingerprint-based background check that screens drivers against an FBI database. Uber claims drivers hoping to register with the city face a daunting backlog and must sometimes wait weeks for approval, something city officials flatly dispute. (Uber's competitor Lyft left town last year rather than comply with the new rideshare regs.)
Amid a barrage of questions from skeptical lawmakers last week, an Uber lobbyist defended how the company screens its drivers at a legislative hearing over a law that, if passed, would effectively nullify rideshare ordinances like Houston's and instead set up a statewide registry that gives Uber total control over the driver screening process. In addition to speaking out against the bill, City of Houston officials drafted a white paper pointing to what the city claims are holes in Uber's third party background checks for drivers.
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In her letter Wednesday, Mayor Parker tells Uber its company is out of compliance with the city's rideshare ordinance, and that the company "may be subject to revocation if steps are not taken immediately to correct this non-compliance." Parker says she wants a plan by Friday, or else "further steps toward revocation may be taken."
See Parker's full letter to Uber below: