Assault charges in San Francisco expose problems with criminal records

handcuffsIn San Francisco, California a driver with Uber has been accused of physically and verbally assaulting James Alva, a passenger. According to reports of the incident, the driver for the ride-share company made insensitive racial remarks and struck the passenger after the passenger threatened to report him to Uber by taking his photograph, and that of the vehicle’s license plate.

When the driver was not arrested by police at the scene, the company chose not to pursue the issue any further, claiming that the driver would be temporarily suspended. Earlier this week it came to the attention of the press that the driver’s account was finally deactivated. The 28-year-old driver in question was San Francisco citizen Daveea Whitmire. The company initially defended itself by saying that Whitmire had passed its standard background checks.

Upon inspection of public records, the media has uncovered that Whitmire has a criminal record. Public records show criminal behavior, including a felony conviction for selling marijuana which resulted in prison time, a felony charge for buying cocaine with the intent to sell, and a misdemeanor charge for resisting a public officer. In 2013 he missed a preliminary hearing which resulted in a warrant being issued for his arrest, and in October of the same year violated his probation, prompting his probation officer to request that Whitmire’s probation be revoked. Four weeks later, Whitmire was accused of attacking James Alva.

Luckily, the violence did not escalate any further than surface blows in this instance, but the public was put in danger when Whitmire was allowed to drive the Uber vehicle. How was he able to pass a background check, considering that criminal records are public?

In San Francisco, criminal records are available at the San Francisco courthouse for anyone who requests them. Despite this fact, Uber was unaware of Whitmire’s past. In fact, they went as far as to publish an official statement citing its background checks as thorough, and as proof of Uber’s commitment to safety. The company even went on record this week as saying their policy for drugs and alcohol offenses was “zero-tolerance.”

It is suspected that perhaps the company is not actually performing background checks at all. Another, much more likely possibility is that the background checks being performed are very low quality, and the criminal charges simply did not appear.

There is not an official national definition of a ‘background check,’ meaning that the range and scope of standards can be incredibly broad. A search done online would not turn up, for example, criminal charges in San Francisco, as these records can only be obtained in person, and at the courthouse. New technology is also able to update the company of any criminal activity by current employees, but clearly Uber was not using such means to protect its clients.

Should San Francisco companies be required to perform a specific criminal records check for all new employees by going to the courthouse? Should these records be more readily available? Hopefully Uber and other local companies will take it upon themselves to increase passenger safety by investing in better background checks.