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In A.C., Uber drivers taking a gamble

ATLANTIC CITY - Joshua DeLeon earned $200 a week driving for Uber, a side job he used to buy an engagement ring for his girlfriend. Then he got a $300 ticket from Atlantic City for operating without a proper license, and he quit.

ATLANTIC CITY - Joshua DeLeon earned $200 a week driving for Uber, a side job he used to buy an engagement ring for his girlfriend. Then he got a $300 ticket from Atlantic City for operating without a proper license, and he quit.

"I was under the impression this was a legal business," said DeLeon, 29, of Egg Harbor Township. "It should be a legal process."

Some Uber drivers operate surreptitiously to avoid fines; others are being chased by local regulators in what Atlantic City Licensing Director Dale Finch called a "cat-and-mouse game."

Atlantic City has issued more than 300 tickets to ride-hailing drivers so far this year, Finch said.

DeLeon found himself, like many others, stuck in a legal limbo. Because ride-hailing companies such as Uber and Lyft are unregulated in New Jersey, some municipalities consider them illegal.

While state legislators are still working on a bill to protect consumers and eliminate a patchwork of local laws, the lack of statewide regulations has created a complicated problem for the drivers, the towns, and taxi companies. Taxi drivers say they pay registration and licensing fees - and have different requirements for background checks - that their new competitors don't.

Stuck in between are people like Mays Landing resident Anthony Mazzone, 30, a personal trainer at Tilton Fitness who drives for Uber on weekends.

Mazzone said he has "learned quick" how to avoid getting a ticket: staying away from taxi lines at certain casinos and using his app to get in contact with riders to let them know exactly where they will meet.

"That is what makes the job uncomfortable," he said. "It's not picking people up that you don't know. It's not going to places where you're unfamiliar. It's the fact that you could be given a citation for driving a drunk person."

Other states and towns have wrestled with the legality of Uber and Lyft. Earlier this month, Pennsylvania passed a law legalizing ride-hailing companies, but only after many months of uncertainty over whether to allow the service. Both companies pulled out of Austin, Texas, after the city wanted to require fingerprinting for drivers.

In October, the New Jersey Assembly passed a bill that would address some concerns, including requirements regarding driver eligibility, insurance coverage, and records retention. The measure still needs to be approved in the Senate and Gov. Christie.

Uber spokesman Craig Ewer said the company instituted measures to keep passengers safe, including photos of the driver, license-plate numbers, and car descriptions, and ratings for both drivers and passengers.

Ewer said the company agrees that statewide regulation would give riders and drivers "the certainty they need that ride-sharing is here to stay." He said Uber runs extensive background checks on its drivers, looking at criminal history, motor-vehicle records, and sex-offender databases.

Ewer said Uber would leave the state, as it has left other areas, if fingerprinting were required "because they are based on incomplete data and can potentially discriminate against minority communities."

Finch, who supports fingerprinting, said Atlantic City's major concern was background checks.

"Uber says that they do a complete background check, and all the limos and taxis say the background check they use is not sufficient," he said.

Finch said Atlantic City will have to come up with an ordinance if the state doesn't take action.

Taxis and limos bring in money for the city. According to Finch, taxi drivers each pay an annual fee of $60 in addition to a $150 annual fee for a taxi medallion, which can have up to four drivers registered to it. There are 250 taxi medallions registered in the city. Limousine drivers pay an annual fee of $100.

"It's the weekends where it's very competitive between the limos and the taxis and now Uber, and the city's not booming like it was, so everyone is kind of fighting for the same dollar," Finch said.

Mercantile inspectors monitor valet lines at casinos on weekends to catch unlicensed drivers, he said.

DeLeon, an emergency-room nurse, said he was stopped while picking up a client at Harrah's Resort.

"Out of nowhere, this one valet driver said: 'Are you an Uber driver?' Then some guy came over and he asked for my license, but he didn't introduce himself," DeLeon said.

He later received two tickets in the mail. At his court date, there were seven ride-hailing drivers facing charges of operating an unlicensed limousine or taxi, DeLeon said.

Uber sent a lawyer to represent the drivers, but one of the two tickets was still imposed on DeLeon.