At first, Thomas Daniels thought he was being called to see the warden at the federal prison in Fairton, N.J., to discuss an educational program he ran for fellow inmates.

He taught courses on credit and finance he thought might help other inmates make a living, and stay out of prison, after their release. Instead, on Dec. 18, 2015, he learned President Barack Obama had commuted his sentence, life plus 30 for cocaine distribution.

"Me and the warden were hugging in the joint and everything," Daniels, 54, remembered with a broad smile. He was among 1,385 who received commutations from Obama, the most issued by any American president.

After 20 years, 5 months, and 10 days in prison, Daniels became free in a world with iPhones, Airbnb, and Uber. An enterprising man, while in prison Daniels got a GED, took college courses, maintained credit cards, and held on to a property in Philadelphia. He started driving for Uber in 2016.

"I had 574 five-star ratings," he said.

Some of Thomas Daniels’ Uber ratings from passengers.
Jason Laughlin
Some of Thomas Daniels’ Uber ratings from passengers.

Fifteen to 20 hours a week, he ferried passengers in his 2006 Camry, earning up to $800 a week.

"I used to tell them I was locked up," he said. "They used to enjoy the story."

That ended in April. Uber informed him that because of eight criminal convictions in Pennsylvania related to drug possession and distribution in 1990, 1995, and 1996 — not the ones Obama had commuted — the San Francisco-based company was canceling his access to its app.

"If I'm good enough to get clemency from the president, who are you to hold something against me?" Daniels said. "I proved myself worthy of being a free man. I haven't reoffended. What do you want for me?"

Uber asserted last week that Delaware law bars people with criminal histories like Daniels' from driving for ride-share businesses such as Uber and Lyft.

Delaware recognizes that some drug offenses can be considered a violent crime, but it was unclear whether Daniels' Pennsylvania convictions fell under that umbrella.

None of the convictions cited by Uber, or Daniels' federal offenses, was for a violent crime. Banning a driver for the reasons given could violate Pennsylvania  legislation governing the ride-share industry and a Philadelphia ordinance that restricts how a person's criminal history can be used to deny employment.

Daniels isn't the first person to face this obstacle with a ride-share company. The Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations also has open cases involving claims that Uber or Lyft violated the city's recently enhanced ordinance that limits the role criminal histories can play in employment, said Rue Landau, that agency's executive director.

Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, a nonprofit that helps people recently incarcerated find work, has about a dozen active cases involving denied employment by a ride-share company due to criminal history, said Jamie Gullen, supervising attorney in the employment unit.

"We've seen cases like this from Uber," Gullen said. "It's a very common problem that our clients have when they have criminal records."

Finding work after incarceration is an ongoing problem for the 70 million to 100 million people in the United States with a criminal history, experts say. Having a criminal record hurts a person's chances of finding a job more than other stigmas such as long-term unemployment, receiving public assistance, or having a GED, according to a 2014 study from the Center for American Progress. That study stated 60 percent of people who were incarcerated were still unemployed a year after their release.

The 2016 legislation that legalized ride-share companies in Pennsylvania permits a seven-year look back at criminal history, though convictions for certain crimes older than that can also be considered. A driver candidate can be disqualified by convictions for sex offenses, certain violent crimes, and acts of terror at any point in life, according to the law.

The offenses that Uber cited in barring Daniels from the app aren't included in the list of disqualifying crimes.

Philadelphia law bars employers from considering any criminal offenses more than seven years old when making a decision about filling a job, unless the offense has some direct bearing on the job. The ordinance should have protected the Philadelphia resident, according to Gullen, because drug offenses have no bearing on working for a car service.

The Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations has received 53 cases since the ordinance was strengthened, the agency reported. Of those, 36 remain open. Fourteen were settled. Only one went to a public hearing; it resulted in a $25,000 reward in wages and damages for the worker who filed the complaint.

Uber, which has more than 20,000 drivers operating in the Philadelphia area, did not respond to a question about other incidents of possible discrimination over criminal convictions. The company did report, though, that it has beefed up its criminal background and driving record checks. It has started conducting annual checks on driving records and criminal history. A recent drivers' audit brought attention to Daniels' old offenses, the company said in a statement.

Uber and Lyft are facing pressure from the Philadelphia Parking Authority, which regulates the ride-share industry in the city, for more information about their operations. The PPA had not received complaints about criminal records being wrongly used to deny drivers access to ride share apps, a spokesman said.

For Daniels, losing his Uber access cost him some extra income. For others, the same experience could be more serious. The courses Daniels taught in prison were prompted by his concern that without the ability to earn a living and build credit, people released from prison will turn back to crime.

Thomas Daniels, who received a commuted sentence from President Obama two years ago, was working as an Uber driver.
Thomas Daniels, who received a commuted sentence from President Obama two years ago, was working as an Uber driver.

"All these things keep a dude behind the eight ball," said Daniels. "What's he going to do? He's going to fold."

Daniels said he had no idea how to challenge Uber's decision.

"There's no way they should have terminated me for something that was 28 years old and 23 years old," Daniels said. "That's impossible."

As it turns out, Uber agreed with him. Thursday, four days after learning Daniels had contacted a reporter and almost a month after he was kicked off the app, Uber notified him that he had been reinstated in Pennsylvania, though he is barred from driving for the company in Delaware.

Uber did not say how many other drivers might have been terminated from its app due to the difference in rules between Delaware and Pennsylvania, and did not say whether any others would be reinstated as Daniels was. The company did say, though, that it constantly reviews and improves its screening process.

Daniels hasn't decided whether to return to ride-share driving.

"It puts a bad taste in your mouth that you would do that to somebody," he said.