When Osmani Limonta Diaz applied to become a driver for ride-hailing nonprofit RideAustin, his criminal record looked clean. It gave no sign of the legal trouble he faces now.
Diaz is accused of raping a female passenger while working for RideAustin on June 10. He was formally charged on Oct. 13. Diaz, however, had passed fingerprint- and Social Security number-based background checks before being hired as a RideAustin driver, the nonprofit said.
The accusations against him have reignited a debate about how ride-hailing entities such as RideAustin, Uber and Lyft conduct background screenings for their drivers.
Last year, Uber and Lyft lost a costly battle with the city over an ordinance that required ride-hailing companies to use fingerprint-based background checks on their drivers — a rule both companies opposed. In a May 7 special election, Austin voters sided with the city. Both Uber and Lyft ended service in Austin city limits a few days later.
The two companies returned on May 29 of this year after the state superseded Austin’s ordinance with a state law that allows ride-hailing firms to operate without conducting fingerprint-based background checks.
RideAustin, though, has continued to use the more thorough fingerprint-based checks, which examine criminal records collected by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
“There is nothing else we could have done in advance to weed this driver out, or we would have,” RideAustin CEO Andy Tryba said.
Tryba said he learned of the rape allegations against Diaz from an Austin police detective two or three weeks after the alleged incident. Tryba said RideAustin immediately suspended Diaz, and then permanently terminated him after formal charges were filed. Diaz, who has a court hearing scheduled for Nov. 28, has denied the accusations against him.
“I am a passionate believer that the checks that (ride-hailing companies) do as an industry as far as tracking is a very safe way and intelligent way for people to be taking rides,” Tryba said.
Some experts, however, say there are issues with the reliability of all background screening procedures — even the fingerprint-based screenings.
“Employers should be very dissatisfied with the current state of background check options,” said Sarah Lageson, an assistant professor and researcher at the Rutgers University-Newark school of criminal justice.
‘Issues with inaccuracies’
While fingerprint-based background checks are considered the best pre-employment screening companies can perform, research has found flaws in the system.
A 2013 report by workers’ rights organization National Employment Law Project, for example, found that roughly 1.8 million workers per year underwent FBI background checks that included faulty or incomplete information, though many cases involved wrong information that hurt a job candidate, such as a dropped charge that was still listed as active on a report.
The study also says nearly half of FBI background reports fail to include information on the final outcome of a case.
The Society for Human Resource Management, which tracks workplace issues, also reported last year that FBI records can at times be weeks or months out of date. The organization used data from SterlingBackcheck, a New York-based background screening company.
“There are a ton of documented issues with inaccuracies” regarding FBI background checks, Lageson said. “Even the companies that pay for it, they don’t always update their records. The FBI has a different relationship with each state, so things can get lost in the cracks.”
Aside from that, the policies that govern ride-hailing firms in Austin are different from the rules that taxi companies here abide by.
All taxi drivers in Austin are required to undergo fingerprint-based background checks, and they also have to obtain a chauffeur’s permit, which allows the city to track real-time criminal records involving a driver. Taxi drivers must also display an identification plate inside the cab.
At the same time, Austin allows drivers that have been convicted of serious crimes such as fraud, theft and sexual assault to apply for a chauffeur’s license as long as those drivers show “proof that the applicant has maintained a record of good conduct and steady employment since release” and has paid all legal fees, according to the city code.
While every company has different background screening policies, all are required to follow guidelines by the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, which enforces non-discriminatory policies and rules about job candidates’ rights to know if they are having their background checked.
“The burden mostly falls on the state to maintain accurate records,” Lageson said. “Having more transparency over how criminal background checks are assembled and disseminated — and keeping it within government, not through corporate third parties — will lead to better information for employers.”
Despite the potential flaws with fingerprint-based background screenings, some in Austin’s city government say that remains the best current option — and that all ride-hailing companies would be wise to use that as standard procedure.
Austin City Council member Kathie Tovo said she encourages ride-hailing companies to do the most they can in screening drivers.
“While incidents such as this one (the allegations against Diaz) demonstrate that criminal background checks cannot always prevent violent crimes, I support RideAustin’s use of biometric background checks to ensure a higher level of scrutiny than state law now requires,” Tovo said in an email to the American-Statesman. “I hope that we see other transportation network companies move toward voluntary adoption of such measures.”
Though RideAustin uses the more thorough background checks, the nonprofit said it continues to examine its internal practices to see what changes, if any, need to be made to improve safety measures, Tryba said.
Additionally, Tryba and other ride-hailing representatives said their organizations regularly review ratings and comments left by passengers and sometimes temporarily or permanently suspend drivers based on that information. Tryba did not say whether the woman who accused Diaz of rape complained through the RideAustin phone app after the alleged incident.
Tryba said RideAustin is also examining whether to require its drivers to obtain a chauffeur’s license, a measure Tryba said RideAustin was exploring before the allegations against Diaz. RideAustin also wants to promote its other safety features, he said, such as a service where customers can request a ride from only female drivers.
“I believe that RideAustin went over and above to not only cooperate with the investigation but also take proactive stances while the investigation was going on,” Tryba said. “I also believe we have security features that are unparalleled to the ride-hailing industry.”