Politics & Government

It could be a crime to impersonate a ride-share driver if new SC bill passes

Some South Carolina lawmakers want to put those who impersonate ride-share drivers behind bars in the wake of the abduction and killing of a University of South Carolina senior.

State law currently does not bar someone from impersonating a ride-share driver, forcing law enforcement to capture predators who pose as drivers for other crimes, such as assault, false imprisonment, attempted robbery and kidnapping.

Lawmakers and law enforcement hope adding a specific charge of impersonating drivers will serve as a deterrent to those who would pray on unsuspecting riders.

A legislative panel Tuesday advanced a measure that would create a misdemeanor offense of impersonating a ride-share driver the same as impersonating a police officer, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

The move comes a month after the death of Samantha Josephson, a 21-year-old University of South Carolina senior, who police say was murdered by a man she mistook for her Uber driver.

“I think this helps (law enforcement) do their job much better, because it gives them the tools that they would need to take these sick predators off the streets,” said state Rep. Beth Bernstein, D-Richland, the bill’s primary sponsor. “It lets people make a report and helps law enforcement to conduct sting operations.”

Both Lyft and Uber support the bill, as does Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott.

“Their motivation is robbery or sexual assault, and we have to do all we can to be proactive and prevent these crimes,” Lott told The State. “The fear of getting arrested, charged and going to jail may stop someone from doing it. And the ability to add an additional charge can keep someone off the streets for a longer time.

“It’s just another tool that we have to add to the other things that we are trying to do. There’s no one thing that’s going to solve this problem, but each one of them will contribute to success in protecting these riders.”

Asked about the bill, Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook said he supports “any common sense legislation that protects the safety and welfare of our citizens.”

Earlier this month, the University of South Carolina and Uber announced a new safety campaign, that included email blasts and push notifications on riders’ phones reminding them to check the vehicle license plate number, make and model, the driver’s photo and to ask that drivers confirm the rider’s identity.

Uber also worked with UofSC and the Columbia Police Department to set up a safe pick-up zone in Five Points at 2100 Santee Ave.

“We appreciate these efforts to strengthen safety, and our hearts remain with Samantha Josephson’s family and loved ones,” Uber spokeswoman Evangeline George wrote in a statement. “We’re committed to working with legislators, as well as universities, to keep students safe and want to ensure riders take the most effective steps to stay safe.”

Lyft spokesman Campbell Matthews said the company shares lawmakers’ goals “to ensure ride-sharing is as safe as possible and to root out bad actors.”

Across the country, law enforcement have reported strings of sexual assault cases in which attackers pretend to be drivers to lure women into their vehicles. All told, there have been at least two dozen such attacks in the past few years, according to the New York Times of a tally of publicly reported cases.

In Columbia, Josephson’s March 29 killing was not the first time local law enforcement searched for a man who allegedly posed as a ride-share driver to pick up young women.

In December 2017, University of South Carolina and Columbia police issued a crime bulletin for a 28-year-old man who allegedly offered rides to women, including students, and took them to places other than their desired destinations and refused to let them out of the vehicle.

In the wake of Josephson’s death, lawmakers have filed bills aimed at increasing safety for ride-share customers.

A proposal to require light-up signs on Uber and Lyft vehicles was scrapped last week in favor of displaying license plate numbers on the front and back of those cars. Critics, including Uber, said the original proposal could provide opportunities for imposters, since the signs can be purchased as cheaply as $5 online. It also could lead to riders neglecting to do more important verification steps, they said.

Initially, Bernstein’s bill amended the state’s criminal code to allow for the prosecution of anyone who impersonates a ride-share driver or ride-share vehicle with attempted kidnapping, regardless of whether the kidnapping or abduction was carried out.

The bill was changed Tuesday by lawmakers, who felt it was an overreach and problematic.

It now heads to the full House Judiciary Committee. With six working days left in the legislative session, the bill may not become law this year, but could pass quickly next year, Bernstein said.