In a bow to pressure from business interests and criminal justice activists, the state government Friday modified background checks for Uber and Lyft drivers that critics said unfairly cost those with past legal and driving infractions their livelihood.
The changes should give some drivers who had been automatically banned because they had court settlements, but not a criminal conviction, more opportunity to appeal their rejections. Regulators are also shortening the time period that a suspended license disqualifies most drivers, from seven to five years.
The new regulations take effect Sept. 22 and replace temporary rules that began in January.
Some activists said the changes did not go far enough and that the state background checks remain overly harsh.
But Katie Gronendyke, a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Utilities, which oversees ride-hail firms, said “the regulations represent several adjustments to address such concerns.” She noted that many drivers “who erred years ago” could ask the court to have their criminal records sealed after a certain number of years.
“The administration believes the regulations protect riders from drivers with serious criminal records and histories of dangerous driving,” she added.
In April, the state reported it had rejected about 8,200 of 71,000 active ride-hail drivers during the initial round of background checks. Hundreds were banned for violent crimes, sex offenses, or serious driving violations, and those conditions remain automatic disqualifiers under the new rules.
But the most common reasons for rejections were related to driver’s license status: Many had their licenses suspended within the last seven years. Others were disqualified because they had court cases that ended not with a conviction but in a continuation without a finding, a form of settlement that defendants can later get dismissed.
Many banned drivers were frustrated the state left them little opportunity to argue their case, automatically rejecting most appeals without a hearing. Drivers and civil rights activists packed public hearing rooms, calling the background checks unfair and potentially discriminatory because minority populations are more likely to have had contact with the criminal justice system.
Now the state appears to have bent, if only slightly.
Drivers banned for having a continuance without a finding can now get a hearing before regulators — but only if the court settlement is more than seven years old. On license suspensions, drivers will be disqualified if the event happened within the previous five years, instead of seven.
However, “habitual traffic offenders,” those who have racked up serious infractions within certain time periods, can be banned for a license suspension within a 10-year window.
The DPU added offenses that could ban drivers, including felony breaking and entering, and witness intimidation.
The state background checks, the first of their kind in the country, go deeper into an applicant’s past than those conducted by Uber and Lyft. The companies note they are limited by state law to checking just the last seven years of a driver’s history, and had previously criticized the state checks as overly stringent.
The DPU elected not to adopt a cap on drivers spending more than 70 hours a week on the road, a measure meant to limit driver fatigue that Uber had opposed. Instead, drivers will be limited to 12 hours on the road a day.
Uber and Lyft both said they are reviewing the new rules.
Johanna Griffiths, a criminal defense attorney who consulted with drivers rejected by the state checks, said the adjustments do not address some central concerns: that the state can still examine an unlimited period of a driver’s history for some offenses and those with court continuances are unfairly banned from work.
Andrea James, an advocate for prison inmates with the group Families for Justice as Healing, said she was dismayed by the state’s approach to the background checks and has little confidence the government will take seriously other matters of criminal justice reform. “It speaks to the state’s absence of will to move us forward to meaningful criminal justice reform,” she said. “They say we need to do something, but they continue to do things like this.”Adam Vaccaro can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamtvaccaro.