The Nerve Rides with Uber ‘Outlaw’

July 28, 2014

Investigative Reports

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GunslingerEditor’s Note: A Nerve reporter on Friday rode with a driver for UberX, a recently launched ridesharing service that state regulators contend is operating illegally in South Carolina. The name of the driver was changed in this story to protect his identity.

It was well past 5 p.m. when most state bureaucrats have gone home for the day. But Joe was still apprehensive.

“I have to be even more careful now because they can see me,” he said while cruising around the Columbia area, waiting for a rider to notify him of a pickup request.

The young man doesn’t consider himself an outlaw. He’s a recent college graduate who, besides driving for Uber, holds down two other low-paying jobs while looking for a more stable full-time position.

“I wish I didn’t have to do this,’ he said about juggling three jobs, though he pointed out that if state regulators and local police would allow him to grow his Uber clientele, “I can actually make a living doing this.”

But Joe is worried for now. He believes the same innovative app that allows consumers to order private drivers from their smartphones – which in just several years has turned the San Francisco-based Uber Technologies Inc. into a multibillion-dollar international operation – is being used by S.C. regulators to track him.

It’s more than a paranoid feeling. Joe says just days after the UberX service launched statewide on July 10, his newer-model car, which has no Uber signs on it, was stopped by an inspector with the S.C. Office of Regulatory Staff (ORS), who was driving an unmarked blue sedan typically used by undercover police officers.

“I’m not going to tell you to stop what you’re doing,” Joe recalled the inspector, who was wearing a gray shirt with a badge, telling him.

But Joe said the inspector also made it clear to him that he could face fines of up to $1,200 and even jail time – plus have his car impounded – if he continued picking up riders for UberX.

“He told me Uber is unsafe, illegal and a bad idea,” Joe recalled. “He warned me not to cross city limits and not to go to the airport.”

Joe said the inspector let him go with a verbal warning.

From ‘Education’ to Tickets

Contacted earlier Friday by The Nerve, Dawn Hipp, director of ORS’ transportation office in Columbia, confirmed that her agency’s inspectors – three for the entire state – have issued verbal warnings to UberX drivers, though she didn’t know how many. She said several of her staff have obtained the Uber smartphone app.

“We have not requested that they do so, but some of them have done so out of curiosity,” she said.

Hipp also said one of her inspectors on Friday afternoon issued the agency’s first written warning to an UberX driver who was at Columbia Metropolitan Airport. She denied, though, it was a “sting” operation, noting the driver in question was spotted while “we had been out there checking taxicabs.”

Asked why her agency has started issuing written warnings, Hipp replied, “We really tried to educate first and tried to get them to come into compliance,” adding, “At this point, we’re writing warnings.”

Hipp said “there’s a potential” her inspectors could issue citations to drivers who have been previously warned.

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 a minimum $1,000 fine and/or a maximum 30 days in jail for third and subsequent offenses. The fines can easily double when various court fees are added.

When questioned about impounding the cars of Uber drivers, Hipp replied, “We don’t have the ability to impound vehicles under the state law.”

The ORS, whose mission, according to its website, is to “represent the public interest in utility regulation for the major utility industries,” has asked the S.C. Public Service Commission to decide whether Uber – which launched simultaneously in Columbia, Charleston, Greenville and Myrtle Beach – and its “partner drivers” are “motor vehicle carriers” under state law. If so, Uber would have to comply with regulations for that group. A public hearing is scheduled for Aug. 26.

Hipp said the position of ORS is that Uber drivers must have a “Class C” state certificate – the same requirement for taxicab drivers. Those drivers without the certificate are violating state law, she said.

Uber contends that it is a technology, not a transportation, company; and that state and local regulations for taxi drivers shouldn’t apply to Uber drivers.

The Nerve first reported earlier this month that according to Hipp, the ORS transportation manager – George Parker, a certified law enforcement officer who legally can carry a gun and make arrests – was asked to leave an Uber driver-recruitment meeting in Columbia on June 17 – a week before ORS filed its petition with the PSC – after a “ruckus ensued.”

Last week, The Nerve reported that police agencies statewide, including Columbia and Greenville and the airports in those areas, were poised to start ticketing Uber drivers, though police spokespersons said then no citations had been issued.

‘Game of Cat and Mouse’

On the ride-along Friday, Joe told The Nerve that several Columbia police officers have privately told him when he wasn’t driving that they don’t want to ticket Uber drivers, but they are being pressured by “higher ups” in the department to ramp up enforcement because of complaints by taxicab companies.

“I personally believe they’re being used now as a bully to protect the taxi companies,” he said. “If they can get people to quit driving for Uber, there will be no Uber.”

As for the multiple state and local regulations that authorities say Uber drivers must abide by, Joe said, “That barrier to entry is there protecting them (taxi companies) from providing efficient service.”

Joe said he was told there are “hundreds” of Uber drivers in South Carolina, though he doesn’t know the precise number. He’s aware of at least a half dozen drivers operating in the downtown Columbia area at any given time, pointing out three – based on locations shown on the app – who were parked or driving on the Capital City’s streets during Friday’s ride-along.

Joe said he is a law-abiding S.C. resident, showing The Nerve a copy of a State Law Enforcement Division criminal background check of himself, which listed no arrests. He said he keeps the document in his car to show any riders upon request.

Women – who he noted are the majority of his customers – tell him they feel safer knowing about the background check, plus through the app can see a picture of him as well as get his driver’s license and license plate numbers before pickup.

No money is exchanged between the driver and riders; the riders pay for their rides through the app. Joe said riders are covered with a $1 million insurance policy provided by Uber, showing The Nerve a copy of the policy.

The Uber app also allows riders to rate the drivers, Joe said, adding that the company has informed him that it will drop him if his collective reviews are even slightly below its top five-star ranking.

Joe said when he informed an Uber representative that “the police are after us,” he was assured the company would support him “100 percent” if he is ticketed by authorities. A company spokesman toldThe Nerve last week that it will “cover all financial or legal costs associated with any unjust citations.”

Still, given that any tickets would appear on his record if he is found guilty, Joe said he is trying to get a chauffeur driver’s license and also is checking into other state and local regulations for taxi drivers.

“I’m trying to make a valiant effort,” he said.

In the meantime, Joe said he is trying to stay clear of ORS inspectors and local police.

“It’s like a game of cat and mouse,” he said. “I just don’t want to be noticed.”

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