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Helsinki police deny ethnic profiling in Uber crackdown

Authorities in Helsinki are investigating about 120 suspected cases of unlicensed taxi operations using the Uber mobile phone app. So far 11 Uber drivers have been charged at Helsinki district court, while another 80 cases have been referred for prosecutors to consider charges. Nearly all of the suspects are described as being of foreign background. Police say that nearly all of the suspects had foreign backgrounds but deny profiling played a part in the sweep.

Image: AOP

The Uber ride-hailing service has operated in Finland since 2014. Its use is illegal unless drivers have taxi licenses.

In September Helsinki District Court charged 11 people for illicit taxi operations. One person was charged twice.

Chief Inspector Pekka Seppälä of Helsinki Police says that hundreds of Uber drivers in Helsinki are suspected of breaking the law.

"At this point there are 120 cases where preliminary investigations are underway or will be launched," Seppälä told Yle. "I estimate that this will take six months, with two investigators and one secretary."

Seppälä says police have questioned about 200 suspected Uber drivers in Helsinki and that preliminary investigations have begun in roughly half of these cases. The smartphone-operated taxi service Uber began operating in Finland 2014. Since motorists who drive for Uber lack taxi permits, the service is illegal.

"Finns are honest"

Seppälä says that suspicions about possible Uber operations are based on a variety of factors.

"It may be a case of [driver being stopped for] a traffic roadblock, a traffic infraction or a suspicion of illegal taxi operations. Or we may check a license plate and find out that automotive tax or insurance has not been paid up or that a car hasn't been inspected. There are many reasons why a car may be stopped and checked. Then we ask the driver and passengers questions. It's not rocket science," says Seppälä.

"Often passengers serve as witnesses. We ask if they've ordered a ride via Uber. Finns are honest and don't want to get into trouble, so they often tell it like it is," he adds.

Nearly all defendants of foreign background

Yle's Swedish-language Helsinki regional news has studied a list of the Uber drivers who have been charged and determined that nearly all of them have names that suggest foreign background. Last spring an Uber driver told Yle that police do not fine or charge those of native Finnish descent.

Seppälä himself raised the issue of ethnic profiling in an Yle interview.

"Skin colour is irrelevant when we stop suspected Uber drivers, but it has turned out that many of them have non-Finnish background. Preliminary investigations also indicate that Uber drivers almost without exception are of foreign background," he declared.

In September, Helsinki appeals court upheld two rulings against Uber drivers handed down by Helsinki and Espoo district courts last April. The defendants had argued that since they were foreigners, they did not understand that their actions were punishable by law, and that there was at the time no legal precedent specifically regarding Uber. They have until the end of November to appeal the decision.

Punishment for illicit taxi operations ranges from fines to imprisonment of up to six months.

One driver caught several times

According to Seppälä, the number of Uber drivers "has not risen at least" following the appeals court decision.

"It may be that the message that this is illegal has gotten through," he speculates.

The two Uber drivers who have so far been sentenced in appeals court have fined and ordered to hand over all of their earnings to the state. One driver in Helsinki earned 12,250 euros during a period of three and a half months, while the other earned 2800 euros within a month.

"If an Uber driver is caught driving a cab illegally several times, his or her car may be seized, but this has not happened yet. As far as we know, the most any driver has been caught has been three times," he says.

According to police, only about a quarter of suspected Uber drivers own the vehicles they drive.

Seppälä says that a car's value may also be calculated as part of the sum that a driver may be ordered to forfeit to the state.

Taxi deregulation in 2018

In September the government agreed on a transport reform that takes effect in mid-2018.

Taxi operations will still require a license, but pricing will be deregulated and there will no longer be a cap on the number of taxi licenses that may be issued. Each Uber driver will in future still need to have a taxi permit as well as of course a valid driving license.