Crime and Punishment

Uber Limo Driver Allegedly Raped a 20-Year-Old Customer In D.C., But Won’t Be Prosecuted

The U.S. Attorney's Office said he is under investigation, but will not be charged.

image (4)The Washington Post reports that a 35-year-old limousine driver named Anouar Habib Trabelsi allegedly raped a 20-year-old passenger. The woman used Uber’s smartphone app to e-hail a black car from outside a bar on U Street in December, which is when the alleged incident occurred.

On Thursday, police held a news conference announcing that they were charging Mr. Trabelsi with first degree sexual abuse. However, in an unusual turn of events, prosecutors contradicted that statement “at virtually the same moment,” saying that no charges would be filed.

Bill Miller, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office, told the Post that the office would not prosecute Mr. Trabelsi. (In Washington D.C., the U.S. attorney’s office prosecutes both federal and local cases.) Mr. Miller said the case remains under investigation.

The Post provides a description of the alleged incident based on court documents:

The incident occurred Dec. 8. Police said the woman called Uber — a smartphone-based dispatch service that provides an alternative to traditional taxis — from outside a U Street bar. Court documents say she had three drinks at the bar and shared a marijuana cigarette with a friend.

The driver contracted by Uber picked her up, police said, and drove her home. The woman told police that the driver made overtures but that she ignored them. After getting out of the limo, she allegedly was grabbed from behind and knocked to the ground, hitting her head on the concrete driveway. She told detectives that she was then raped.

Although The Post describes Mr.  Trabelsi, who was released from custody yesterday, as “working under contract for Uber,” a statement provided to Betabeat from Rachel Holt, Uber’s general manager in Washington, D.C. says Uber’s relationship to the driver was through a partnership with Capitol Limo that has been terminated. Ms. Holt wrote:

“Immediately upon being told that a driver for Capitol Limo, a limo company utilizing Uber technology, was suspected of committing a crime, we deactivated the partner account. He has not done a single ride through Uber since then. We have worked closely with the police and prosecutors investigating this incident, and will continue to help them in any way possible. The safety of our users is absolutely paramount, and we will continue to be vigilant that riders’ safety and security are protected.”

We have requested information from Uber on their policy for vetting partnerships and drivers and will update the post when we hear back.

Uber has gotten a spate of positive press for its ongoing efforts at SXSX, which has been offering UberX rides to “thousands” of festival attendees. Local regulations don’t permit Uber to launch in Austin, but just as the company did in New York City, they have giving away free rides as a way around that.

I took a service a handful of times in Austin, riding in mini vans, two Honda Fits, and one pickup truck. The New Yorker interviewed Uber drivers about the vetting process for the festival:

“Over eight or so rides, I learned that the training for Austin UberX drivers, who were recruited through a Craigslist ad, consisted of a forty-five-minute orientation following a background check, though “twenty minutes of it was just filling out forms,” one driver told me. Another driver admitted, as she nearly ran into a group of people in a crosswalk, that she had only attended “like five minutes” of the training. Most of the orientation was about how to use the Uber system and “what not to do,” according to one driver—the biggest thing not to do was accept gratuity, since it would jeopardize the legality of the enterprise.”

I was told by one driver that Uber paid drivers $20/hour. A gentleman manning one of Uber’s Game of Thrones pedicabs said he was paid extra because of the weight of the promotional throne added 80 pounds and “puts a lot of drag on the bike.” He got the gig through his “bike agent,” Movement, but declined to specify how much he was paid.

UPDATE: An Uber spokesperson said that as a technology platform, the company doesn’t hire drivers directly. It only partners with black car and taxi companies that employ drivers licensed to operate for-hire-vehicles. Obviously that wasn’t the case in Austin, although one of the drivers we encountered happens to run a car company. But Uber said that situation was different because Austin’s strict rules prohibit e-hailing apps.

 

Follow Nitasha Tiku on Twitter or via RSS. ntiku@observer.com