Vail Uber incident sparks statewide investigation, ends in $8.9 million fine
DENVER — A Vail Uber driver’s confrontation with a client is just one of dozens of offenses that saw the ride-sharing service hammered with an $8.9 million fine.
Criminal investigators with the Colorado Public Utilities Commission levied the fine against Uber’s parent company, Rasier LLC, for contracting with drivers with criminal records and motor vehicle violations, and some without valid driver’s licenses.
The Public Utilities Commission launched its investigation earlier this year when the Vail Police Department received a report that accused an Uber driver of assaulting a passenger.
Vail police reports say Matthew Michael Higgins was initially charged with second-degree assault last March, when he allegedly struck intoxicated passengers who refused to get out of his Kia Soul after he delivered them to the Marriott Streamside in Vail.
Higgins’ case was closed Wednesday, Sept. 13, when he plead guilty to menacing. He doesn’t go to jail if he stays out of trouble for four year. However, his $150 fine opened the door for Uber’s $8.9 million fine.
Vail Police passed the Higgins report along to the Colorado Public Utilities Commission earlier this year, and that sparked the Public Utilities Commission’s statewide investigation of Uber drivers, the agency said in a news release.
The Public Utilities Commission cross-checked a list of Colorado Uber drivers with information from the Colorado Crime Information Center and court databases.
The Public Utilities Commission looked at Uber drivers for the past year and a half and found that 57 Colorado Uber drivers with violations were working during the past year and a half, including:
• 12 Uber drivers with felony convictions.
• 17 Uber drivers with major moving vehicle violations, such as DUI, DWI, reckless driving or driving under restraint.
• Three Uber drivers with interlock driver’s licenses, which are required after recent drunken driving convictions.
• 63 Uber drivers with driver’s license issues.
• A number of aliases used by their drivers, including one driver who was a convicted felon, habitual offender and at one point in his past had escaped from a Colorado state prison. Nevertheless, after he was released from prison, he became an Uber driver.
“We have determined that Uber had background check information that should have disqualified these drivers under the law, but they were allowed to drive anyway,” Public Utilities Commission Director Doug Dean said. “These actions put the safety of passengers in extreme jeopardy.”
Colorado law demands that ride-hailing companies such as Uber perform criminal background checks before allowing someone to become a driver. The company must also obtain and review a driving history report for individuals before they are allowed to drive. Drivers must have a valid driver’s license, the Public Utilities Commission said.
Uber released a statement, claiming the problems stem from a “process error.”
“We recently discovered a process error that was inconsistent with Colorado’s ridesharing regulations and proactively notified the Colorado Public Utilities Commission,” Uber’s statement said. “This error affected a small number of drivers, and we immediately took corrective action. Per Uber safety policies and Colorado state regulations, drivers with access to the Uber app must undergo a nationally accredited third-party background screening.”
Ride-sharing companies are required to disqualify drivers who have been convicted of specific offenses, such as felony convictions, alcohol or drug-related driving offenses, unlawful sexual offenses and major moving vehicle violations.
While Uber might not have found those violations, the Colorado Public Utilities Commission did.
“PUC staff was able to find felony convictions that the company’s background checks failed to find, demonstrating that the company’s background checks are inadequate,” Dean said. “In other cases, we could not confirm criminal background checks were even conducted by Uber.”
Under Public Utilities Commission rules, Uber can pay 50 percent of the $8.9 million fine, if it pays within 10 days, or the company can request a hearing before an administrative law judge to contest the fine.
The Public Utilities Commission fined Uber $2,500 a day for each day a disqualified driver was found to have worked.
Colorado’s $8.9 million Uber fine comes as the company is facing lawsuits on assault allegations against its contracted drivers and accusations of a sexist corporate culture that forced out co-founder and CEO Travis Kalanick.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and firstname.lastname@example.org.