Elizabeth Archie got approved to drive for Uber last year even though she had three convictions for theft and an assault arrest on her record. The Mall of America and Macy’s had banned her as a customer.
Then in April, while driving a passenger in south Minneapolis, Archie ran a red light and crashed into another car. Her vehicle was totaled and remains undriveable. Archie, who broke her wrist in the crash, said she and her passenger were lucky to get out of the crash alive.
The company, Archie said, invited her to resume driving.
Minneapolis and St. Paul have made it easy for people with criminal records or bad driving histories to work for Uber and rival Lyft by enacting the least restrictive rules of any of the nation’s top 25 metro areas, a Star Tribune review of local laws found. The standards that exist are mostly self-enforced by the companies, and drivers who shouldn’t qualify can find ways around the rules.
Among those approved to drive here: convicted felons, drivers with as many as four drunken driving convictions and men convicted of crimes related to assaulting their wives and girlfriends. Most continue to drive for the companies, which now provide more rides in the Twin Cities than traditional taxis.
“It is just terrifying,” Minneapolis City Council Member Blong Yang said. “These are people we should be protecting the public from.”
When Uber and Lyft came to the Twin Cities in 2013, the companies convinced local officials that tough regulations would make it hard to sign up enough drivers. As a result, the standards are either identical to those Uber and Lyft proposed or, in some cases, more flexible.
For instance, Lyft proposed barring any driver with more than one DWI conviction, but both cities allow drivers if they have not been convicted or penalized for drunken driving in the past three years. Most large cities disqualify anyone with a DWI conviction in the past seven years, records show.
Both Uber and Lyft say they typically follow local driver standards. Uber spokeswoman Kayla Whaling said the company has rejected thousands of local applicants, but she acknowledged that some drivers who shouldn’t qualify have slipped through.
After the Star Tribune shared its findings with the companies and local officials, Uber removed 11 local drivers, including Archie, noting that disqualifying offenses had somehow been missed during the application process. Nine other drivers with problematic records already had been removed by the company because of complaints and other issues. Whaling said the company is taking steps to make sure lapses do not reoccur.
“We took your inquiry very seriously and did a full review of every single driver so we could have a full understanding of what we did internally and where mistakes were made,” Whaling said. “As a result of this thorough review and as a result of working with you, we are making changes in Minneapolis in terms of training and re-emphasizing our standards.”
Lyft declined to address findings regarding specific drivers, but a spokeswoman said applicants “undergo rigorous screenings.”
Convictions don’t disqualify
Almost a third of the 176 Uber or Lyft drivers the Star Tribune identified have been convicted of offenses that violated Uber’s or Lyft’s hiring standards or would have disqualified them from driving for the companies in other cities, records show.
Police reports show that five of those drivers were later involved in crashes while working for the companies. An Uber driver who spent a year on probation for trespassing in 2010 was arrested in August and charged with a felony after he allegedly abducted a teenage girl in an apparent effort to rape her, police records show. An Uber driver with an extensive rap sheet was arrested in Washington County on a fugitive warrant after he fled felony assault charges in Illinois.
Just four of the 176 drivers, however, flunked under the rules governing ride-sharing in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Minneapolis City Council Member Jacob Frey, chief author of the ordinance governing Uber and Lyft’s local operations, said he remains convinced that the city’s hiring standards are adequate to protect the public.
“I believe people can make big mistakes, serve their time and rehabilitate,” Frey said.
Other council members in Minneapolis and St. Paul, however, said the Star Tribune’s findings show a need for tougher standards.
“It goes beyond troubling,” said St. Paul Council Member Dan Bostrom, a former police officer. “Would you want your mother or daughter to get in a car with one of these guys? I think not.”
Invited back after crash
Archie’s three theft convictions didn’t disqualify her under the rules in Minneapolis. But she would have been barred in St. Paul because she didn’t complete probation for her most recent conviction until 2014, about a year before she began driving for Uber. St. Paul requires a clean record for three years.
Archie, 31, said Uber never asked her about her rap sheet, which also includes a conviction for disorderly conduct.
Archie had been driving for the company for more than a year when she pulled up outside Alexa Schauer’s apartment building this spring. Schauer said she almost backed out when she discovered that Archie would be taking her to the airport. She had ridden with Archie once before and, as she recalled, “It was a scary ride.”
But Schauer was running late. A few minutes later, Archie sped through a red light and crashed into an SUV.
“It was a rainy day and there must have been a green light ahead of me that I was looking at instead of the actual light in front of me,” Archie said.
After the crash, Schauer used Uber’s rating system to complain. The company refunded the $6 fare and sent her $300 for the deep bruise she sustained to her leg.
“It was not handled well on their side,” Schauer said. “They definitely don’t seem to care about who they are hiring to drive people around.”
Archie, who logged more than 30,000 miles driving for Uber before the crash, said Uber asked her to come back to work as soon as she replaced her car. But she said she has not been able to afford a new vehicle.
Of the two companies, Lyft appears to be more stringent in screening out drivers with criminal histories. Archie is one of several drivers identified by the Star Tribune who qualified to work for Uber but were rejected by its competitor. Other drivers said Lyft’s checks typically took at least twice as long.
“Lyft is much more thorough in checking their drivers,” said Timothy Michael Jennings, who was approved by Uber despite pleading guilty to felony drug charges in 2012, a disqualifying offense in the Twin Cities. Jennings completed his three-year probation term in 2015.
Uber spokeswoman Whaling said Archie and Jennings are no longer allowed to drive for Uber. Whaling said that Uber has about 10,000 drivers in the Twin Cities.
“One thing we have learned clearly in our research and in doing millions of background checks is that no background check is perfect,” Whaling said. “But we believe that the procedures used by Uber and other [ride-sharing companies] stack up well against the alternatives in terms of safety.”
Approaches to screening
Not all cities trust Uber and Lyft to conduct their own background checks.
In Houston and New York, public officials handle the job. The two cities also require all drivers to be fingerprinted, which enables officials to catch applicants who are trying to use someone else’s identity.
In Houston, the city has rejected hundreds of applicants who already had been approved to drive by Uber and Lyft, according to Houston regulator Lara Cottingham, who oversees the ride-sharing industry. Among those rejected were people charged with crimes including murder, sexual assault and robbery.
“There are holes in the commercial background checks,” said Cottingham, noting that records in many states and counties are not available to commercial background check firms.
Minneapolis and St. Paul let Uber and Lyft handle the checks, and both companies outsource the work to commercial background check firms. Those companies failed to screen out drivers who committed up to 21 moving offenses. The maximum limit is four in a three-year period.
John Myles Henning racked up six moving violations since 2013 but still signed on with Uber. In 2015, a police officer pulled Henning over while he was carrying passengers after watching him drive through two stop signs, forcing a car to swerve to avoid hitting him.
“You need to slow down. You need to relax,” the officer told Henning, according to a video of the incident. “I know you’ve got a business, but that doesn’t mean you get to disobey all the laws.”
Henning was removed from Uber’s platform after the Star Tribune informed city officials of his offenses. “I got nothing to hide,” Henning said. “Those aren’t criminal violations. Those are traffic tickets.”
Getting around rejection
Even drivers who flunk background checks have found ways to drive for the companies.
Woodbury resident Kurt Michael Shea drove for Uber for six months despite four convictions for drunken driving, the most recent in 2010 — which disqualified him under Uber’s rules. After pleading guilty to the last offense, Shea lost his driving privileges for four years, court records show.
Shea also pleaded guilty to assault in 2003 over an incident in which he repeatedly punched his wife in the face and threatened to kill her if she called authorities, according to the criminal complaint.
“I’ve made plenty of mistakes in my life,” Shea said in an interview, adding that he hasn’t had a drink in six years.
Shea said Uber initially rejected his application over his most recent DWI conviction.
But Shea said he appealed and won after convincing the company that he was a responsible driver. In March, he passed a surprise inspection in St. Paul, records show.
Uber, however, said the company never approved his application.
“We believe that he may have been using his wife’s account,” Whaling said, adding that Uber removed Shea’s wife from the system after being notified of Shea’s claims by the Star Tribune.
Shea did not respond to Uber’s allegations.
Rethinking the approach
Several council members in Minneapolis and St. Paul said they want to discuss the idea of removing the authority to conduct background checks from Uber and Lyft. Both cities handle taxi drivers differently, conducting criminal background checks themselves.
“We don’t want a tragedy to take place,” said Minneapolis Council Member Abdi Warsame, who co-authored the city’s ride-sharing ordinance. “Their background checks are not rigorous enough ... We are not having the same problems with taxi drivers.”
Several council members in Minneapolis and St. Paul said they also would like to ban any driver with more than one or two DWI convictions in their lifetime. Altogether, the Star Tribune identified eight people who drove for Uber or Lyft despite having multiple DWI convictions.
“I am as liberal as they come, but we have an obligation to protect the public,” Yang said. “I can understand one DWI, but when you get to more than one it doesn’t make any sense for people like that to be driving” for Uber or Lyft.