Over the summer, the Austin City Council took a hard stance on criminal background checks for taxi drivers, eventually expanding them from a statewide check to a national one. But last week, council members reversed course on that decision.
The change was made in an attempt to level the playing field. Drivers for ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft were subject to national background checks, while those who drove taxis, shuttles or limos typically only underwent a statewide one.
So, the council voted to mandate national checks for all drivers.
If a driver was convicted of certain criminal offenses, they were disqualified from obtaining a city permit. The change came as a shock to many. Speaking at City Hall on Thursday, chauffeur Michael Pettersen told the Council that he’s now being denied a permit because of a crime he committed decades ago.
“Because of the changes to the ordinance, 30 years of work, of living right, it didn’t seem to matter,” Pettersen said. “Now this has put my livelihood… and has put a very distinct uncertainty to my family’s future.”
Council heard from other drivers and employers who echoed that sentiment.
The amendment passed on Thursday will allow drivers appeal a permit denial stemming from their criminal history. The process will consider the nature and gravity of the driver’s criminal offense, how long ago it took place, as well as whether or not it affects a driver’s ability to do their job. The measure was sponsored by District 4 Council Member Greg Casar, who said the earlier ordinance had unintended consequences.
“…And while I do respect and understand that it’s unintentional, I do want to just note, however, that there was an amendment to create this sort of process when we were going through it, and I appreciate that we’re changing to sort of make that happen,” Casar said.
Casar also offered an amendment for the process to go into effect immediately, allowing drivers to appeal before the coming holidays. City staff will now work to inform drivers who've been rejected about the change and notify them of the appeals process.
Several council members agreed there’s more work to be done in refining the city’s regulations for ride-hailing, but two bills filed in the Texas Legislature propose taking that rulemaking authority away from cities and adopting uniform statewide regulations.