A Houston Uber driver accused a raping a passenger has a criminal record, and had just been released from prison three years ago, according to reports.
57-year-old Duncan Eric Burton has been arrested and charged with sexual assault after allegedly taking a woman back to his apartment and raping her in January.
According to court documents, the last thing the woman remembers is being at a bar with a couple of friends on January 26. According to her friends, she was pretty drunk ("Ill and throwing up"), so they called an Uber and gave the driver (Burton) her address.
The Houston Press blog picks it up from there:
The woman told the officer that "the last thing she recalls is being at the club with the two friends, ordering one round of drinks, and then has no recollection of anything after, until waking up the next morning, alone, in an unfamiliar apartment," according to the affidavit. She went to Memorial Hermann Southwest to have a sexual assault exam conducted.
When the officer contacted Burton, the Uber driver said that she did not live at the address on her driver's license, but had moved around the corner, the affidavit states. But when the woman knocked "on an unknown apartment door...a male answered, advising [the woman] that she did not live there," according to the affidavit.
Because Burton "was unable to get an exact address" for the woman, he took her to his apartment off Wilcrest Drive, the affidavit states.
It's at his apartment where police say Burton "admitted to performing oral sex, vaginal sex, and anal sex with [her]." The victim says she has absolutely no memory of the Uber ride, the sexual assault, or even Burton himself.
Now, the Houston Chronicle is reporting that Burton had a criminal record. Uber, as you may know, claims to perform extensive background checks on all of its drivers.
According to the Chronicle, Burton served 14 years for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine. He was released in 2012 after serving only part of his original 18-year sentence. And Uber spokesperson told the Chronicle that Burton has passed the company's background checks.
Of course, this raises a couple of questions – mainly how? and who let that slide by?
Watchdog group Who's Driving You highlights the pickle this puts Uber in:
"Either this driver slipped past Uber's criminal background check or Uber did discover his criminal history and decided it was OK to let him drive. Regardless, this case illustrates how trusting Uber to conduct its own criminal background checks amounts to allowing the company to decide whether or not to put this individual behind the wheel. Houston would not have allowed this now alleged rapist to drive. Uber did," said Dave Sutton, spokesperson for 'Who's Driving You?'.
Uber has called its background check "rigorous".
"All Uber ridesharing and livery partners must go through a rigorous background check. The three-step screening we’ve developed across the United States, which includes county, federal and multi-state checks, has set a new standard. These checks go back 7 years, the maximum allowable by the Fair Credit Reporting Act. We apply this comprehensive and new industry standard consistently across all Uber products, including uberX," said the company in a blog post.
But it's not just abut background checks. In Houston, there appears to be a backlog when it comes to getting Uber drivers up to speed with the latest city permits.
Listen to what and Uber spokesperson told Houston Press:
"When the city implemented its permitting process, thousands of driver partners were already using the Uber platform to make a living. We have been working closely with the city to move these drivers through the permitting process as quickly as possible, and every week hundreds of drivers complete the process, but the system is not designed to quickly and efficiently issue permits to a large volume of applicants."
Apparently, Uber is struggling to get its drivers the proper permits – a permit that likely would not have been granted to Burton.
"Someone with a negotiated drug conviction on his or her record would not be eligible for a city-issued permit, but could appeal and attempt to receive one," said Laura Cottingham, deputy assistant director with Houston's Administration and Regulatory Affairs Department.
It would be easy to pile this on top of all the other stories about Uber drivers and assault – but this one appears to be a bigger black eye for Uber. This is the first time a convicted felon seemingly slipped through the company's background checks and wound up (allegedly) raping a passenger.
Last month, Uber highlighted all the steps it's taking to improve user safety.
"Our Safety Product Team is developing more ways to put technology to work to ensure the safety of riders and drivers in key areas. We are initiating research & development on biometrics and voice verification to build custom tools for enhanced driver screening," it said. The company has also discussed employing lie detectors during the screening process.
On April 2, the day Uber revoked Burton's privileges, the company poached Facebook's Chief Security Officer.
“We believe deeply that, alongside our driver partners, we have built the safest transportation option in 260 cities around the world,” said Philip Cardenas, Head of Global Safety, in a blog post back in December. “But we have more work to do, and we will do it. Uber is committed to developing new technology tools that improve safety, strengthen and increase the number of cities and countries where background checks are conducted and improve communication with local officials and law enforcement ... Our responsibility is to leverage every smart tool at our disposal to set the highest standard in safety we can. We will not shy away from this task.”
Just last month the story emerged of an Uber driver accused of kidnapping and rape in Philadelphia. Adding to the disturbing nature of the allegations is the fact that Uber only suspended the driver near the end of March, even though the alleged assault took place on February 6. Uber claims that they were not notified of the incident until then and it suspended the driver immediately, so it appears the police may have forgotten to mention it to Uber.
Still, the incidents continue to pile up, and they're becoming more and more disturbing.
Image via Jason Newport, Flickr Creative Commons