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Editorial: Two years and a lawsuit later, license rules clearer

Editor’s note: This editorial was updated to correct the spelling of Judge David Thomson.

The path to a driver’s authorization card, known in Motor Vehicle Division lingo as a DAC, will finally be as easy as it was designed to be in 2016 state legislation, thanks to a settlement agreement the state Taxation and Revenue Department has entered into.

That’s good news for anyone who simply wants to be able to drive legally or get a basic identification card – something needed for everything from cashing a check and opening a bank account to renting a hotel room. It should not have taken a lawsuit to get MVD to adhere to the regulations on its own website, which is the position taken earlier this year by the Journal’s editorial board.

But that suit has resulted in a settlement that – one hopes – will result in MVD clerks finally, uniformly adhering to state law and stop making it harder for people to get a basic license or ID.

New Mexico has by design a two-tiered system for drivers’ licenses, one that complies with the 2005 federal Real ID Act and one that doesn’t. A Real ID license requires proof of a Social Security number (as well as a birth certificate or passport and two proofs of residency), and will allow the holder to board a commercial airliner and enter certain federal buildings after October 2020. A DAC (which also requires two proofs of residency) simply allows the holder to drive and has never required proof of a Social Security number, not since the state began issuing them in November 2016. Except some clerks have apparently been requiring proof of Social Security numbers.

Advocates argue the less stringent option is particularly important for homeless and elderly residents, and immigrants. Not everyone has a Social Security card or a valid passport or original birth certificate. And not everyone who does wants to share it with MVD.

As part of the settlement agreement, which has been approved by state District Judge David Thomson, the state dropped a requirement to show proof of an “identification number” – such as a Social Security card – for applicants who want the driver’s authorization card. Actually, there was no such requirement. Consider:

1. The 2016 enabling legislation included Social Security number as an option only. It says in part: “An application for a driving authorization card shall include proof of the applicant’s identity and age as shown by a social security number or an individual tax identification number; a passport from the applicant’s country of citizenship or an identification card, issued by the consulate of Mexico in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the consulate general of Mexico in El Paso, Texas, or such other foreign consulate with which the department has established a reliable method of verifying the authenticity of the identification card; a valid New Mexico license or identification card; a certified letter of enrollment or a valid identification card issued by a federally recognized Indian nation, tribe or pueblo; or a document that the secretary has authorized.”

2. The “List of Acceptable Documents for Driver Authorization Card Issuance” posted online in November 2016 clearly starts with “If … (applicant does not have SSN) two of the following are required:” and lists 29 options, including a current driver’s license, birth certificate and medical insurance card with an identification number. An updated list as of June 26 expands to 34 options, including a recent non-ER medical record or proof of welfare benefits.

As part of the settlement, the state has agreed to expand the list of acceptable documents for proving age, identity and New Mexico residency. More importantly, MVD has also agreed to new training for employees and appeals for applicants denied a credential in certain circumstances.

The lawsuit was filed by the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness; Somos un Pueblo Unido, which advocates for immigrants’ rights; and former Santa Fe Mayor David Coss and six others. Coss, the lead plaintiff, said he was improperly turned away when trying to get a DAC and later found MVD practices were hurting New Mexicans.

MVD should not have been making it harder than required for customers to obtain basic licenses and ID cards, and it shouldn’t have taken a lawsuit to get the agency’s clerks to comply with the law. But a settlement that improves customer service rather than a protracted lawsuit that burns up taxpayer dollars is the right move – and MVD now needs to make sure ALL of its clerks have the proper training.

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.

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