Anti-terror law complicates driver licensing


A federal anti-terrorism law intended to improve the security of airliners and federal buildings is going to make driver licensing more complicated - and probably more expensive - starting in a little more than two years, state officials say.

The REAL ID Act requires states to verify that people who apply for driver's licenses are in the United States legally by directing them to scan and check identity and legal-residency documents.

Residents of states that fail to do that by May 11, 2008, may find their licenses - the most commonly used form of public identification - not accepted for air travel or access to federal courthouses and other facilities.

At the time of its passage last year as part of an $82 billion emergency military appropriation for the war in Iraq, the law attracted criticism primarily from immigrant-rights activists.

But now state motor-vehicle officials nervously await Department of Homeland Security regulations that will tell them how much information they need to gather and how they need to maintain and verify it.

Fred Stratmann, a spokesman for the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles, said the law is likely to force the state to acquire document-scanning devices for each of the 218 deputy registrar offices across Ohio and to provide for electronic storage of the images those scanners create.

Furthermore, Mr. Stratmann said, "We have to verify all those documents with the agencies that issue them."

Citing his own example, Mr. Stratmann questioned how highly the New York City health department would prioritize an Ohio BMV request to verify his birth certificate when his license is up for renewal. "We're looking at a very difficult logistical situation," Mr. Stratmann said.

Kelly Chesney, a spokesman for Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land, said her agency may be in a slightly better situation than its counterparts in other states because it is in the process of "fundamentally changing" its information-technology systems.

The changes could be tailored to accommodate the Homeland Security regulations when they are issued, she said.

Matt Sundeen, a spokesman for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said the federal agency is expected to issue its rules by the end of this year. Along with changing states' practices for verifying and retaining documents, he noted, the law imposes security requirements for motor-vehicle offices.

"It really has a potential for escalating costs to the states," he said.

While Ms. Chesney said it is too early to assess how Michigan's costs, and thus its motor-vehicle fee structure, might be affected, Mr. Stratmann said it is quite possible that Ohio's licensing fee will increase.

Ohio now charges between $19.25 and $24.25 for an initial license, depending on age, and $24 for four-year renewals. Michigan charges $25 for a new license and $18 for renewals, also on four-year intervals.

Mr. Stratmann said the federal rules also may make it impossible for Ohio to continue issuing new or renewal licenses on the same day that an application is received.

Mr. Sundeen said the law also may force states that allow some license renewals by mail, including Michigan, to discontinue that practice.

Michigan is one of 10 states that currently does not require proof of lawful presence in the United States for issuance of a driver's license.

Information on the secretary of state's Web site states that the agency's goal is to be able to issue licenses compliant with the federal law by 2007, including the proof of lawful presence requirement.

Ms. Chesney said her office is proposing that because the REAL ID rules closely resemble the documentation required for a passport, federal officials should allow compliant driver's licenses to be used as border-crossing identification in lieu of a passport for Michigan residents returning from Canada.

Contact David Patch at:

or 419-724-6094.