Austin Widens the Scope of Taxi Driver Background Checks

By Michael Klazema on 4/13/2016

As Uber faces legal problems for holes in its background checks, the city of Austin, Texas is taking steps to enhance vetting policies for its own transportation drivers. According to a report from the Austin American-Statesman, the Austin City Council has voted to make background checks for local taxi, shuttle, and limousine drivers "national in scope."

The new "national" or multi-jurisdictional background checks will use fingerprinting to look for criminal convictions beyond state lines. Right now, Austin city requirements only mandate state background checks for most taxi, shuttle, or limo drivers. The exception is for drivers who have lived in Texas for less than three years. In such cases, city licensing officials add a background check in a driver's previous state of residence.

Even for drivers who have lived in Texas for a short period of time, the fingerprint background checks will broaden the scope. Of course, multi-jurisdictional background checks are not foolproof and don't provide searches of every single criminal record in all 50 states. It isn't immediately clear whether or not the new requirements the Austin City Council approved will supplant the current background check policies or supplement them. The safest option would be to keep the current policies in place and simply add the multi-jurisdictional fingerprint checks as an extra step. However, such a decision would also be more expensive.

This new ordinance is something of a follow-up to a similar measure that the Austin City Council passed in December. That ordinance is supposed to require drivers of ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft to undergo fingerprint background checks. However, the two companies have so far been staunch in their arguments that fingerprinting would scare away potential drivers and make it difficult to operate in Austin. Whether or not the ordinance gets repealed will be decided by public vote on May 7th.

In addition to requiring drivers to go through new background checks for chauffeur licenses, the Austin City Council is responsible for establishing rules on what sort of offenses would disqualify drivers from receiving such licenses. The proposal for the new ordinance did include stipulations about different offenses and how they would be handled in the licensing process. Specifically, the new rules would not automatically disqualify drivers for DUI offenses, drug possession, and other non-violent crimes so long as those convictions are seven years past or older. The City Council is tabling discussion on those factors until May or June—until after the public votes on the ridesharing fingerprinting ordinance.


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