Groups Say Fingerprint-Based Background Checks Could Lead to Racial Discrimination

Oct 19, 2015

Austin City Council members are one step closer to requiring fingerprint-based background checks for Uber and Lyft drivers in the city. But the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Austin Urban League have sent a letter to City Council alleging that these kinds of background checks discriminate against minorities.

When you’re arrested and then booked, there’s ink involved.

“A fingerprint is taken from someone at the very, very initial stage of processing in the criminal justice system,” says Jennifer Laurin, a law professor at UT’s School of Law. “It’s taken at booking, typically, which happens even before a first appearance before a court.”

Laurin says fingerprints are first connected to an arrest. In its letter to Council, the NAACP, and co-signers the Austin Urban League, say minorities are often arrested more often than others. While African-Americans make up roughly 8 percent of the city’s population, they made up 24 percent of the arrests made by Austin police last year. All those fingerprints are taken and stored in the FBI database. Local and state agencies are expected to tell the FBI whether the person was then charged or convicted – or neither, but some agencies don’t do this in a timely manner. The NAACP argues that FBI records are often incomplete, meaning only arrests are listed:

The City of Austin’s current ordinance on TNCs is creating tremendous benefits in Austin. With this in mind, we respectfully ask you to reverse the fingerprint-based background check recommendation. We agree with the Austin Transportation Department’s March 2015 recommendation that there is no need to change TNCs’ background check process. Rather than jeopardize all the progress that’s been made, we urge the City Council to build on the successes of the past year and embrace the city’s current TNC framework that’s bringing jobs and transportation choices to communities that need it.

“Obviously in our system, an arrest is not an indicator of guilt of anything,” Laurin says.

But Council Member Ann Kitchen, who proposed the amendment requiring background checks, says an arrest wouldn’t be the end of the line for an applicant.

“Determinations about whether or not a person is eligible to drive are not made on arrests alone,” Kitchen says. She says the City would not deny someone the ability to drive for Uber or Lyft simply because of an arrest, but that it might mean going back to that applicant and giving them a chance to explain the arrest and what came of it, if anything.

The letter argues that one drawback to a follow-up appointment is that it may require the applicant to take off from his or her day job and, possibly, arrange for childcare:

Furthermore, we know that the added time and financial cost of requiring drivers to undergo twobackground checks will add new and unnecessary barriers to the process, preventing people who are low-income from driving on rideshare platforms to make extra money. Given that many people rely on TNCs as a means to make ends meet, we’re also concerned that imposing additional costs of finding childcare and forcing people to take off time from their day job in order to complete the city’s duplicative process will only present further challenges for families. As a result, the people who need this flexible earning opportunity would be hurt the most.

Kitchen and others argue the advantage of fingerprint-based background checks is accuracy, as they help weed out false or duplicate names. Plus non-Uber and Lyft taxicab drivers in Austin all currently undergo fingerprint-based background checks.

You can read the whole letter below:

Letter of Opposition to Fingerprinting Austin's Uber, Lyft Drivers