Licensed to Drive - But Who Is It?



Yakima County is seeing an increasing number of a relatively rare kind of driver's license that carries the phrase "not valid for identification purposes."

The licenses are issued to people who pass the driver's test but lack valid photo identification or proof of identity.

Some question the wisdom of the practice at a time when identity theft and border security are of nationwide concern.

"The law should be looked at," said Rep. Jim Clements, R-Selah. "I am getting more and more calls on identity theft. It's a serious issue."

Licensing officials say they have no evidence the nonidentification licenses contribute to identity theft or other types of fraud.

The state Department of Licensing has issued 596 such non-identification licenses in the county so far this year, up 22 percent from 488 last year.

Statewide, 1,665 of the licenses have been issued so far this year, compared with 1,753 last year.

The state law allowing the nonidentification licenses has been on the books since 1993.

Licensing officials say it is meant to accommodate people who, for various reasons, do not have valid photo identification but have other forms of secondary documents sufficient to obtain a driver's license.

"It's plainly written on the front that we're not absolutely sure this person is who they say they are, but they can safely operate a motor vehicle," said Brad Benfield of the Department of Licensing, which is a unit of the state Transportation Department.

Washington appears to be one of the few and perhaps the only state with such a law.

"I really never heard of it," Jason King, spokesman for the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, a nonprofit, Arlington, Va.-based group made up of state transportation and licensing officials.

The group supports a more uniform driver's licensing system nationwide and describes its mission as working to "improve motor vehicle administration, safety, identification security and law enforcement."

King didn't criticize the practice but said he could understand concerns among merchants presented with such a license by a customer paying with a check.

"The American public and businesses put so much faith in DMV practices and believe the driver's license is a sound product, and it's not," King said.

Jar Arcand, owner of Santiago's restaurant in Yakima, became aware of the license after talking with local police.

He said he's worried about his liability if he uses such a license to establish a customer's age for serving alcohol, and then the document turns out to be fake.

"How can you prove the age if you can't prove who it is?

"I really think the state is contributing to fraudulent activity. I as the merchant am going to get burned," Arcand said.

But Benfield of the licensing department said the cautionary printing is readily visible on the license.

"The merchant would certainly have to make the decision about whether they are going to accept it. This gives them that opportunity," Benfield said.

Several legislators said they were surprised to hear of the practice, including Sen. Bob McCaslin, a Republican representing the Spokane Valley. He is also chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"It came up last year that they don't ask for proof of citizenship. I was surprised people are getting licenses when we don't even know if they are citizens," he said.

The issue is a volatile one in California, where lawmakers recently repealed an unpopular law that would have allowed illegal immigrants to obtain a driver's license.

Carol Perez of Perez Insurance Agency in Yakima said the phrase is readily visible. She also said she has not noticed a larger increase in the licenses.

"I've seen a few but not a lot," Perez said.

Officials would not supply a photographic image of the special license, citing security concerns.

On licenses issued to drivers over 21, the phrase "not valid for identification purposes" is printed in a blank spot between the signature and photograph in black text and in the same type size as the driver's name.

On minors' licenses, the phrase appears underneath the date of birth but above the signature next to the photograph.

The problem is that, for better or worse, driver's licenses have become a form of de facto identification card for banks, airlines, merchants and in other types of commerce, said Doug Reynolds, president of the nonprofit Washington State Crime Prevention Commission.

"If a driver's license is not going to be valid ID, what is?" asks Reynolds, who is a police officer with the SeaTac Police Department.

David House, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Licensing, said he's aware of the special Washington license. Oregon has nothing similar, he said.

"You come in here, you don't leave with a driver's license unless you can verify your identity," he said.


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