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S.C. Cops to Uber: Follow Regs or Face Charges

Police in South Carolina are poised to start ticketing drivers for a popular smartphone-app, ridesharing service that recently launched in the Palmetto State, The Nerve found in a survey of police agencies.

Representatives of the Columbia and Greenville police departments, as well as the Columbia and Greenville-Spartanburg airport police departments, told The Nerve this week that UberX drivers who do not follow state or local regulations could receive warning tickets or citations, which carry fines, at the discretion of officers.

The San Francisco-based Uber Technologies Inc., founded in 2009 and which says it provides ridesharing services to more than 100 cities worldwide, announced on July 10 that it had launched service that day in Columbia, Charleston, Greenville and Myrtle Beach.

“We have to catch them in the act,” said Columbia police spokeswoman Jennifer Timmons when contacted Monday, though she made a point of not mentioning the Uber company by name. “If people know of this, they have to contact us.”

“We’re not targeting them,” Timmons added. “We just want the public to fully understand to use caution when you’re riding in a vehicle with someone you don’t know.”

“If they essentially are operating a business without a license, then, yes, they can be charged at the officer’s discretion,” said Greenville police spokesman Johnathan Bragg when contacted Tuesday, though he added, “We haven’t actively seen anyone doing it.”

In a prepared statement issued Tuesday, the city of Charleston said its police department is “seeking voluntary compliance before taking enforcement action.”

“The State of South Carolina and the City of Charleston have prudent licensing requirements both for taxicab and limousine companies and for the drivers they employ,” the statement said, though it didn’t identify any company by name. “The new ride-sharing companies operating in the area do not have licenses from the State of South Carolina and the City of Charleston to operate here.”

Asked by The Nerve on Monday whether Charleston police have issued any tickets to Uber drivers, police spokesman Charles Francis replied, “We haven’t done anything yet,” though he declined further comment.

Charleston city spokeswoman Barbara Vaughn said Tuesday city officials have “heard there is another (ridesharing) company who may be interested but I have no name.”

It was unclear whether Myrtle Beach police are planning any enforcement action against Uber drivers. Contacted Monday, city police Capt. David Knipes told The Nerve, “I have not heard any complaints about this company,” adding, “I haven’t even heard of the company.”

Spokespersons for the police departments at Columbia Metropolitan Airport and GSP International Airport told The Nerve on Tuesday that UberX drivers could be ticketed by their officers if they don’t obtain airport permits, though no citations have been issued so far.

Protecting ‘Special Interests’

Asked whether Uber Technologies Inc. would pay the fines of any UberX drivers cited by police agencies in South Carolina, company spokesman Taylor Bennett issued the following prepared statement Monday to The Nerve:

“Uber fully stands behind our driver partners and will cover all financial or legal costs associated with any unjust citations. These efforts are simply an attempt to protect special interests and limit competition and choice. And that’s bad for the residents and visitors of South Carolina who are already relying on Uber to get around their cities safely, reliably and affordably.

“We look forward to continuing to work with city and state officials to develop sensible regulations that embrace innovative technologies that offer greater choice and opportunity for riders and drivers.”

In a story last Wednesday in The Nerve, Bennett described Uber as a “technology company – not a transportation company.”

“We do not hire drivers and we do not own vehicles,” Bennett said then. “We provide a technology platform that connects riders to drivers with the safest ride on the road.”

Columbia-area taxicab companies, however, contacted last week by The Nerve said Uber is essentially a taxi service and contend that it has an unfair competitive advantage because it is not complying with state and local regulations for taxi companies.

Asked Monday if cab company representatives had contacted the Columbia Police Department about Uber, Timmons replied, “I know we have been contacted, and they have conveyed their concerns with the (police department’s) traffic safety unit.”

The S.C. Office of Regulatory Staff (ORS) contends that Uber Technologies Inc. is breaking state law by not obtaining a state “Class C” certificate required of taxicab companies, as The Nerve reported last week. 

The ORS in a petition filed June 24 with the state Public Service Commission alleged that Uber has “failed to provide to the Commission or ORS any evidence of compliance with the Commission’s driver and vehicle safety requirements.” A public hearing on the petition is scheduled for Aug. 26.

The Nerve reported last Wednesday that a week before the petition was filed, an ORS officer who went to a Uber driver-recruitment meeting in Columbia was told to leave after a “ruckus ensued,” according to Dawn Hipp, who heads the ORS transportation office.

Under state law, anyone “operating as a passenger carrier” without a required state certificate is guilty of a criminal misdemeanor, punishable by a minimum $100 fine for a first offense, a minimum $500 fine for a second offense, and minimum $1,000 fine and/or a maximum 30 days in jail for third and subsequent offenses. The fines don’t include any court surcharges or other fees, which can easily double the total cost.

In last week’s Nerve story, Hipp said ORS inspectors had not issued any citations to Uber drivers, nor had the agency asked any police departments in the state to ticket drivers who fail to comply with state or local regulations.

Columbia, Charleston Regulations

As of Monday, Uber Technologies Inc. had not obtained city business licenses in Columbia, Charleston, Myrtle Beach or Greenville, The Nerve found in a check of city business license offices.

Timmons cited Columbia city ordinances regulating taxis, shuttles and limousines, which require that any “vehicle for hire” operated on city streets be inspected annually by the police department, and that drivers or the person “in charge of any vehicle for hire” obtain a permit from the police department. The permitting process includes a criminal background check by the department; those who are convicted of certain offenses, including sexual and other violent offenses, are prohibited from obtaining permits.

City codes also regulate taxi, shuttle and limousine drivers in other ways, such as, for example, banning them from wearing “T-shirts, tank tops, flip-flops and hair curlers” while on the job.

The fines for violating city ordinances are $185.63 per offense, Timmons said. In comparison, fines by the Columbia Metropolitan Airport police “start at $237.50 and go up,” airport spokeswoman Kaela Harmon told The Nerve when contacted Tuesday.

In Charleston, regulations for ridesharing companies require, according to the city statement issued Tuesday:

  • Drivers obtain a chauffeur’s license, which includes a criminal background check and driver history report;
  • Confirmation of commercial liability insurance covering riders;
  • Display of an “appropriate license plate which conveys that the vehicle is a vehicle for hire”;
  • Current vehicle inspection; and
  • A “regulated fee structure,” which, for the "City of Charleston peninsula," includes a $5 charge for any “licensed vehicle ride.”

Violation of any “one of these laws” is punishable by a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail and a $1,097 fine, according to the city statement issued Tuesday.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.

Accountability City of Charleston Local Government State Agencies

S.C. Office of Regulatory Staff GSP International Airport Columbia Metropolitan Airport S.C. Public Service Commission Uber Technologies Inc. UberX