An Uber driver was arraigned Friday on charges that he raped a passenger in Dorchester earlier this week, at least the third driver in the company’s Massachusetts operations to be accused of sexual assault in the past two months.
The alleged crime reignited a debate about whether Uber is adequately vetting its drivers to protect passengers and whether state officials, who recently passed a law to tighten oversight of the popular ride-hailing service, should consider stricter measures.
Under the law, which was approved last month but has not gone into effect, Uber and Lyft drivers will undergo state background checks, but will not be fingerprinted as Boston taxi drivers are. The driver in the latest incident was charged in an earlier crime, but the charges were dismissed.
State Senator Linda Dorcena Forry, a Dorchester Democrat, said that officials should not wait until November 2017 to require criminal background checks, as the law allows, but should move quickly to ensure drivers are carefully scrutinized.
“It’s really frustrating when you see these attacks happen over and over again,” said Dorcena Forry, who fought unsuccessfully to have Uber and Lyft drivers fingerprinted. “It’s hurtful to the victim and hurtful to the community. When is it going to stop?”
Boston’s police commissioner, William Evans, who has also advocated for fingerprint background checks, described Wednesday’s alleged assault as “extremely troubling.”
“This incident is a disturbing reminder of how important it is to ensure the safety of all residents, visitors and students in our city who use ride-sharing services,” Evans said in a statement. “I still support the need for strict background checks and increased security measures because public safety is, and always has been, my number one priority.”
Uber spokeswoman Kayla Whaling said the alleged assault was disheartening and said the company will continue to help police with their investigation.
Prosecutors say the accused driver, Michael Vedrine, 32, picked up the passenger around 3 a.m. Wednesday and drove her to Dorchester, where he forcibly fondled her and, when she tried to walk away, grabbed her and assaulted her, before she managed to escape.
When investigators interviewed Vedrine, he said the young woman was drunk and the act was consensual, Wright said. After the interview, detectives allowed him to leave but seized his cellphone and car. About 20 minutes later, Vedrine used a pay phone to call the woman, who got scared and hung up. Police then arrested him.
“Right now, where this case stands, this is an allegation where there are two sides to the story,” said Vedrine’s lawyer, Kristen Wheeler. Vedrine cooperated with investigators and was arrested only after he called the alleged victim, she said.
Wheeler said that Vedrine must have “known that number by heart” to call from a pay phone, “which gives more context to what this relationship was between these two people.”
Vedrine pleaded not guilty in Dorchester District Court Friday to two counts of rape and two counts of indecent sexual assault.
Vedrine was charged in 2010 with indecent assault and battery, but the case was dismissed a year later. Vedrine has an eight-page driving record that includes citations for speeding, failing to stop, and other violations. The Registry of Motor Vehicles said Vedrine’s license is slated for suspension next month unless he completes a retraining class.
Under the new law, ride-hailing companies will have to check drivers’ backgrounds and disqualify applicants on the basis of a “suitability standard” to be determined by the state. The state will also conduct its own background checks, which cover drivers’ criminal records and sex offender registry information.
The law “prioritizes public safety” and includes “some of the strongest ride-for-hire background check systems in the nation,” Billy Pitman, a spokesman for Governor Charlie Baker, said Friday. “His thoughts are with the survivor and her family during this difficult time.”
The law formally takes effect in November but gives state officials a year to craft regulations before they are adopted.
Uber officials have said the company runs criminal background checks on all new drivers and rescreens them twice a year. Drivers can’t join the service if they have had a felony conviction in the past seven years or a major driving violation, such as a suspended or revoked license or registration, in the past three.
In a statement, Whaling said restrictions on the scope of criminal background checks can limit the information companies have access to. For instance, the law prohibits certain sex offender information being accessible electronically, she said.
“Given the legal limitations in place, any company operating in Massachusetts may be unable to access some of the information they need in background screening processes,” the statement read. “While no background checks are perfect, we are addressing this and pushing for relevant information to be digitized so all companies can have access to it.”
Suffolk Assistant District Attorney AlexaRae Wright asked that Vedrine be held on $50,000 cash bail, noting the dismissed indecent assault and battery charge. But Judge Lisa Ann Grant released Vedrine without bail and ordered him to stay away from his accuser. Outside the courthouse, Vedrine ran from a group of reporters.
The alleged assault was the latest in a string of crimes recently involving Uber drivers.
In July, an Uber driver from Lawrence allegedly sexually assaulted a 25-year-old female passenger. Last month, a 34-year-old Uber driver was accused of raping a 16-year-old Everett girl he met while driving for the company, despite what authorities said was a long criminal history.
Also last month, another Uber driver was arrested after allegedly exposing himself to girls in Everett and Malden, though he was not driving at the time. On Tuesday, a man who identified himself as an Uber driver was arraigned on charges that he robbed and pushed a woman who called him for a ride in Malden.
“We really need to think about how we’re going to protect young, vulnerable women who are getting into vehicles by themselves,” said Senator Barbara A. L’Italien, an Andover Democrat and critic of the law. “It’s our job to make sure people are safe.”