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Council approves law barring many former offenders from driving for taxi companies, TNCs

Friday, June 17, 2016 by Jack Craver

City Council approved an ordinance that will bar many convicted of low-level criminal offenses from operating a taxi or driving for transportation network companies such as Uber and Lyft for many years after their offense.

Those convicted of certain felony offenses, including a felony-level charge for selling, manufacturing or delivering drugs, will be permanently barred from offering rides for hire, whether for a traditional taxi or limo company or a TNC. In addition, those with any felony offenses will be barred from getting a chauffeur’s permit for seven years after the conviction.

Misdemeanor offenses that will also disqualify an applicant from getting a license for seven years include drunk driving, reckless driving, fraud, resisting arrest, property damage or prostitution, or a misdemeanor charge for selling, manufacturing or delivering drugs.

The ordinance was proposed by Council Member Ann Kitchen, also the author of the ordinance imposing the fingerprint-based background check requirement for TNC drivers that ultimately resulted in Uber and Lyft leaving Austin, although other TNCs are now offering service.

Council Member Greg Casar, who led the push for the “Fair Chance” ordinance that barred employers from asking applicants about criminal records, offered an amendment to loosen the strict exclusions outlined in Kitchen’s proposal. Rather than uniformly bar those with certain convictions for a certain period of time, Casar argued that city staff should be granted the discretion to evaluate the specifics of an individual’s conviction record.

Kitchen said she sympathized with Casar’s desire to promote second chances but that she was concerned specifically about giving staff discretion to grant licenses to those convicted of the most serious offenses, which her measure would permanently bar from being licensed. She also said that granting that sort of discretion to staff would eat up too much of their time.

Council Member Delia Garza also expressed support for Casar’s intent but said that certain jobs demand a higher level of trust, referencing her own experience as a firefighter. That higher standard is necessary, she said, “when we allow a corporation to have somebody by themselves at 2 in the morning.”

Casar reasoned that his amendment was extending the discretion to city staff that the city extends to area businesses, which are now prohibited from asking about an applicant’s criminal history at the beginning of the hiring process but may learn about it later in the process.

“This is me trusting our staff just like we trust other employers,” he said.

In the end, only Casar and Council Member Pio Renteria supported the amendment. The eight other Council members and Mayor Steve Adler voted against it.

Although Kitchen had hinted that she might support a similar amendment that focused only on lower-level offenses, Casar did not offer an alternative. Instead, he voted along with every member of Council except Council Member Don Zimmerman to approve the ordinance.

A proposed change that Kitchen did agree to came from Council Member Ellen Troxclair, who said she was concerned about a range of prostitution-related offenses leading to only a seven-year ban rather than a lifetime ban.

Ultimately, Troxclair asked that only “aggravated promotion of prostitution” be included with murder and sexual assault in the permanent ban category.

Ultimately, Troxclair asked that all prostitution-related offenses (though not prostitution itself), such as promotion of prostitution and compelling prostitution, disqualify individuals permanently. She understood, she said, that many convicted of prostitution are forced into the work through abuse. No Council member objected to that change.

Zimmerman did not voice strong objections to the language of the ordinance but chose to abstain, saying he didn’t think Council should be regulating ride services in the first place.

This story has been corrected.

Photo by Alexander Torrenegra from Secaucus, NJ (New York Metro), United States – On my first @Uber ride in Bogota heading to a Startup Weekend. Priceless easiness and safety. I love disruptive innovation., CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37982760

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