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Legal, political battles bedevil ridesharing

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WASHINGTON (AP) — If there's one thing smartphone-based car-hailing service Uber is used to, it's legal and political battles.

And there's been plenty of them in the region. Last week, the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles ordered Uber and fellow ridesharing service Lyft to cease all operations in the commonwealth. Similar fights have played out in the District of Columbia and Maryland over the last two years, not to mention cities and states across the country.

So where do these services stand in the eyes of the law? Here's a local summary.

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA

District regulators were the first in the region to fire a shot in the battle against Uber, a popular service that allows users to hail a car (or taxi, SUV or even fuel-efficient hybrid) with their phones.

In early 2012, D.C. Taxicab Commission Chair Ron Linton conducted a sting on an Uber driver, prompting a two-year legal and political battle that pitted the service's fans and many city legislators against the commission and traditional cab drivers. Later that year, the D.C. Council passed a bill clarifying that Uber and other such services — which now include Lyft and Sidecar — can legally operate in the city.

Still, the fight over if and how the District can regulate the services continues: In April, the Taxicab Commission introduced proposed rules that could impose insurance requirements and limits on how long drivers can stay on the job every day. City regulators say the rules are needed to keep riders safe, while the services argue that they are unnecessary impediments being pushed by traditional taxicab drivers.

Status: Legal and operational.

VIRGINIA

Last week, both Uber and Lyft received cease and desist letters from the Department of Motor Vehicles, which said they were operating in violation of state law. (Earlier this year, both companies were slapped with $35,000 in civil fines for operating without permits.) According to DMV spokeswoman Sunni Brown, the department is looking to incorporate the services into the commonwealth's transportation options, but current law doesn't allow them to operate freely:

"Virginia DMV supports innovation. The agency has been in communications with Uber and Lyft for months to educate them on Virginia's law with the goal of bringing them into compliance so that they can operate lawfully in Virginia. During this same period DMV has been charged by the General Assembly to conduct a study of these transportation network companies. We are confident that the solution to transportation network companies operations will come out of the study and we hope that Uber and Lyft will actively participate in the study and be a part of creating the solution. In the meantime, Virginia DMV must fulfill its obligation to highway safety and enforce the law as it is currently written."

As it did in Washington and other jurisdictions where it has faced legal or political resistance, Uber has adopted a defiant tone, defending its service while refusing to cease operations and even offering to pay the fines of drivers who do continue providing rides. Lyft has similarly said that it believes it is operating legally, and will not obey the cease and desist order.

Status: According to Virginia, illegal. Both Uber and Lyft are still operating, though. Additionally, the DMV clarified to WAMU 88.5 that the cease and desist order only applies to intra-Virginia rides. If an Uber or Lyft driver crosses state lines — even if in a Virginia-tagged car — there isn't much the DMV can do. That means that one of Uber's most popular routes — from the District to Washington Dulles International Airport — remains OK.

MARYLAND

Last month, Uber kicked off service in Annapolis, despite ongoing uncertainty as to whether it will remain in the Free State for long.

In April, a Public Service Commission judge proposed that Uber and similar services be categorized as "common carriers," essentially subjecting the companies to the same rules and regulations followed by traditional taxicabs. Uber has appealed the decision, and just last week filed a memo to the commission outlining its objections to the decision. In its filing, Uber said that it isn't a traditional transportation company like a taxicab operator is, but rather a conduit between riders and drivers.

"We partner with existing transportation companies, and UberBLACK and UberSUV drivers use Uber's technology platform to increase earnings during otherwise underutilized time. Drivers have complete control over their business, including whether to join Uber, how many hours they work, where they work, and when they work. UberBLACK and UberSUV drivers are not employees of Uber — they do not work for Uber, but rather with Uber."

Uber and Lyft have also faced requests from taxicab companies that they be prevented from operating in the state.

Status: Legal and operational, but the commission's decision could determine whether Uber and other services remain in the state.

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Information from: WAMU-FM, http://www.wamu.org

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