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​California tightens background checks on Uber, Lyft drivers

Governor Jerry Brown signs a new law that will fine ride-hailing companies up to $5,000 per driver if those drivers are found to have criminal histories.

Uber and Lyft drivers face stricter background checks in California under a new law.

Uber, Lyft and other ride-hailing companies will now be required to give their drivers stricter background checks in California.

Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation Wednesday forbidding ride-hailing companies from hiring drivers with any violent felony convictions; previously background checks went back just seven years.

News of assaults by ride-hailing drivers has been a frequent occurrence. Reports of rape, battery and harassment have grabbed headlines in California, Georgia, Illinois, Texas, Washington, Florida and many other states. While some of these drivers have clean criminal histories, others had prior convictions that Uber and Lyft's background checks didn't find.

"As a father of four daughters, I don't want my children being picked up by a driver convicted of murder or rape," Assemblyman Jim Cooper, who wrote the bill, said in a statement. This bill "will uncover the complete criminal history of prospective drivers and would help ensure the safety of riders."

Uber and Lyft already prohibit drivers with violent felony convictions and carry out extensive background checks, but under current state law those checks can't go back further than seven years. The new law will now allow ride-hailing companies to complete felony checks that go back for drivers' lifetimes.

Both Uber and Lyft supported the new legislation. A Lyft spokeswoman told CNET the law allows the company "to grow and thrive in California." An Uber spokeswoman said "the legislature and governor have clearly defined how driver screening should be conducted."

The new law, which goes into effect January 1, 2017, also forbids Uber and Lyft from allowing drivers on its platform that are registered sex offenders, have prior violent misdemeanors, or cited for driving under the influence of alcohol violations in the past seven years. Both companies say they already bar drivers with such infractions. However, if someone with a criminal history is found to be driving for Uber or Lyft, the companies could now face fines of up to $5,000 per driver.

In 2014, Los Angeles and San Francisco's district attorneys sued Uber and Lyft for misleading passengers about safety and background checks. The government officials uncovered 25 Uber drivers who had prior convictions of murder, assault, sexual offenses and child abuse. Lyft settled with the state for $500,000 in December 2014, and Uber settled for $25 million in April of this year.