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Editorial: Lawsuit the wrong way to resolve driver’s license denial

It simply defies explanation why the former mayor of Santa Fe can’t seem to renew his driver’s license.

There’s no question that when the state of New Mexico moved to Real ID-compliant licenses and Driver Authorization Cards in November 2016, there was a learning curve – for drivers as well as Motor Vehicle Division clerks.

The system requires drivers to present specific documents for a Real ID license, which also serves as a vetted federal identification card, and less-stringent documents for a DAC, which simply allows the holder to drive legally. It was mandated by Congress after the 9-11 attacks and is being implemented by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

And while it is different from the days of simply walking into an MVD office with your soon-to-expire license and re-upping it, even for those just wanting a DAC, almost 35,000 driver’s authorization cards have been issued in 15 months.

Yet David Coss says MVD clerks repeatedly turned him away when he tried to get a DAC because he had lost his Social Security card and they insisted he needed it to get a DAC. He is now the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit accusing the state Taxation and Revenue Department (which oversees MVD) of requiring too much documentation for those seeking a DAC and other ID cards.

You can request a replacement Social Security card online and get it in a few weeks, but that’s not the point of the lawsuit.

The fact is, according to MVD’s website,, you don’t need proof of a Social Security number to get a DAC.

Coss may have drawn an uninformed or misinformed MVD clerk every single time he went in, because the list of acceptable documents for a DAC posted on the website is extensive. And he says he brought in the proper documents, just not a Social Security card.

Rather than protesting his DAC rejection, Coss joined with the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness, Somos un Pueblo Unido, the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and ACLU of New Mexico to sue Tax and Rev, claiming the state went beyond state law and is requiring DAC applicants to “establish proof of identification number.” And the lawsuit claims an “untold number” of people have been unlawfully denied DACs.

MVD’s own list specifically says applicants who do not have a Social Security number can instead use two proofs of identity – and it lists 29 options, including current New Mexico driver’s license; foreign or U.S. government birth certificate; valid passport; Medicare, Medicaid or other medical insurance card; military ID, discharge papers, VA ID or selective service card; tribal membership card; court order for a name change, adoption, divorce or gender change; or state Corrections Department or federal prisons ID.

The changeover has been hard, and not only in New Mexico. But it is essential to remember that Real ID was passed by Congress in 2005 after 18 of 19 terrorists used state-issued driver’s licenses to board planes and then crash them into the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon and, thwarted by heroic passengers, a field in Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, 2001. In fact, Robert Thibadeau, director of Carnegie Mellon’s Internet Security laboratory, has said “the 19 terrorists on Sept. 11 were holding 63 state driver’s licenses for identification.”

The chances are slim to none that the nation is going to return to a pre-9-11 ID and licensing system. But the state has been working with Homeland Security to make adjustments for drivers who simply do not have some of the documentation, such as Native Americans who do not have a birth certificate but do have a Certificate of Indian Blood. Those types of accommodations need to continue, as does ensuring that front-line clerks are properly trained and have the resource materials and backup they need to assist applicants who don’t have their documents in order or are using ones off the beaten path.

As a government agency almost everyone has to deal with every four years, MVD is an easy target for criticism. But a lawsuit that burns up scarce taxpayer dollars that could have been used to improve customer service is an un-Real way to go.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.