Florida Keys

Uber drivers face arrest and fines in Key West

In this Wednesday, March 18, 2015, file photo, the Uber app displays cars available to make pickups.
In this Wednesday, March 18, 2015, file photo, the Uber app displays cars available to make pickups. AP

Uber faces another battle for its drivers in South Florida.

Uber drivers in Key West will face arrest and a possible $500 fine if caught driving without a passenger vehicle-for-hire license, following a city ordinance that went into effect on July 1.

The ordinance, which city commissioners approved last year, says it is illegal for Uber or any other ride service to operate passenger vehicles-for-hire without the proper licenses. Key West spokeswoman Alyson Crean said drivers without this license can be arrested, although no arrests have been made.

Crean says the ordinance has to do with city liability, since Uber takes passengers on city roads. Uber uses freelance drivers operating their own vehicles; passengers hire them via an app.

Uber spokesman Bill Gibbons says the company hopes Key West officials rethink the ordinance.

"It is unconscionable that [Key West] would seek to limit safe, reliable transportation ahead of one of the deadliest weekends of the year for drunk driving-related incidents. We hope the city will reconsider and work with us,’’ Gibbons told the Keynoter before the Fourth of July.

Under the ordinance, Uber drivers who do not have the vehicle-for-hire license face up to 60 days in jail and/or a $500 fine. These licenses are capped and have not been available for 20 years, the Keynoter reported.

Hank Allen was the first Uber driver in Key West when the company began operating there in December. He has a court date on Thursday after being charged with failure to maintain a passenger vehicle-for-hire driver permit and vehicle license. Allen says he was never warned by the county or by Uber that failure to have these permits in Key West was a misdemeanor.

“I figured if I ever got stopped, it would be dealt with under civil code,” Allen said. “[Key West] is not interested in better customer service or updating the [taxis]; their business plan is to have these licenses and not let anyone compete.”

Jeff Baldwin, a Key West taxi driver, sees it completely differently.

Uber “is saying they’re not taxis and that they’re a ride-sharing company and that’s a bunch of crap. All Key West did is define what is already on the books, that you can’t operate any business without the right permits.”

Uber recently said it would suspend services in Broward County at the end of the month after Broward passed rules requiring each driver to obtain a county chauffeur registration, a car permit and county-run background check, as well as carry state-required commercial insurance. Other municipalities across the U.S. are creating similar requirements for the ride-sharing company.

In a written statement to the media, Uber said it had no choice but to suspend operations in Broward.

"Broward County officials implemented one of the most onerous regulatory frameworks for ride-sharing in the nation. We hope the Board of County Commissioners will revisit the issue when they return from break and work with us to bring Uber back to Broward."

Uber in Miami-Dade remains in operation, although illegally.

Keynoter writer Anthony Cave contributed to this report.

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