New Mexicans prevail in driver’s license lawsuit

SANTA FE, NM – On Tuesday, civil rights groups and homeless advocates announced a settlement agreement reached in a lawsuit against the New Mexico Taxation and Revenue Department and the Motor Vehicles Division that requires the state to properly implement its two-tiered driver’s license law and take much-needed steps to ensure New Mexicans can more easily access to an alternative to the federal REAL ID as state legislators intended.

“Everyday New Mexicans came out on top today,” said David Coss, former mayor of Santa Fe and lead plaintiff in the lawsuit filed in January. “I look forward to finally obtaining my state license knowing that other people won’t have to go through the difficult and frustrating process I did. I believe that government should create opportunities for residents to get ahead, not barriers that get in their way. This settlement ensures fewer barriers and restored access to these essential documents.”

The lawsuit Coss v. Monforte challenged the MVD’s regulations governing the issuance of non-REAL ID driver’s licenses and identification cards, including the illegal practices of requiring proof of an “identification number” and not providing adequate due process to applicants who were denied a credential. The roll out of those regulations caused many applicants across the state to be wrongly denied a license or ID, and in countless cases, it triggered multiple visits to MVD and other government agencies for additional documentation not required by law.

On Friday afternoon, Santa Fe First Judicial District Court Judge David K. Thomson signed the settlement agreement between MVD, organizational plaintiffs and individual plaintiffs delineating what the MVD must do to have the case dismissed with prejudice.

Under the settlement agreement, the MVD will:

  • No longer require proof of an identification number, such as a social security number, to apply for a Driving Authorization Card (DAC) or non-federally compliant identification card.
  • Implement new regulations that will only require proof of New Mexico residency, identity and age for a non-REAL ID credential.
  • Expand the list of acceptable documents to show proof of New Mexico residency, identity and age.
  • Inform applicants who are denied a DAC or non-federally compliant identification card on the basis of a fingerprint background check of the reason for the denial, evidence the applicant can provide MVD to resolve the denial and information on how to appeal a denial and the timeframe for doing so.
  • Provide additional training to MVD clerks and public information regarding the new rules and policies.

In 2016, New Mexico lawmakers created a two-tiered driver’s license system that gives New Mexicans the choice to opt in or out of the federal REAL ID Act. While the state law requires MVD to provide a REAL ID-compliant license or ID card to New Mexicans who can meet the federal government’s burdensome requirements, the MVD is also required to issue a non-REAL ID license or ID card to eligible applicants who do not meet the federal requirements or simply do not want a REAL ID.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit included senior citizens, immigrants, and homeless New Mexicans who need a license or ID to go to work or school, obtain housing, medical care or other necessities.

Individual plaintiffs who were denied licenses and ID cards are joined by organizational plaintiffs New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness and Somos Un Pueblo Unido in the lawsuit. David Urias of Freedman, Boyd, Hollander Goldberg Urias & Ward, P.A. is the lead counsel on the legal team that includes attorneys from Somos, ACLU-NM, and the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty.

The defendants in the lawsuit are the NMTRD, acting Cabinet Secretary John Monforte, the MVD, and Acting Director Alicia Ortiz.

The following are additional statements from plaintiff organizations and the legal team:

“A broad coalition of community groups, public safety advocates and legislators has worked together over a 15-year span to ensure that all New Mexicans have the ability to apply for a license or ID, critical tools in navigating every day life,” said Marcela Díaz, Executive Director of Somos Un Pueblo Unido, an organizational plaintiff in the lawsuit. “The onerous and misguided federal REAL ID Act threatened our common sense licensing policies, but the Legislature pushed back and gave us a real alternative that meets the needs of New Mexicans. We are satisfied that through this agreement, citizens and non-citizens alike will have access to accurate information about the non-REAL ID license, as well as a more efficient process to obtain it.”

“This agreement is an important victory for New Mexicans experiencing homelessness,” said Hank Hughes, Executive Director of New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness. “Obtaining an identification card is often the first step for someone who has lost everything, as they put their life back together. This agreement removes the unnecessary barriers that were in place with the old regulations.”

“We’re relieved the MVD has agreed to stop asking New Mexicans to provide unnecessary documentation in order to get a non-REAL ID license or ID,” said Sovereign Hager, legal director at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. “MVD’s decision to comply with our state law benefits all New Mexicans, but especially families who do not have a stable place to live or consistent employment. An ID or driver’s license is a basic necessity to do just about anything. Without one, you can’t drive, fill a prescription, cash a check, find housing, or get job to support your family. We hope MVD will continue to work on common sense improvements that will streamline access to IDs and licenses for all New Mexicans.”

“We applaud the professionalism of MVD officials in hammering out this agreement with our organizations,” said Gabriela Ibañez Guzmán, staff attorney with Somos Un Pueblo Unido and co-counsel in the lawsuit. “The settlement represents a sensible solution that will benefit hardworking New Mexicans and ensure that people are not left without a driver’s license or ID.”

“The federal REAL ID was a bad law that imposed unnecessary identification requirements on New Mexico residents,” said ACLU of New Mexico executive director Peter Simonson. “In its wisdom, the Legislature passed a law to ensure compliance while also guaranteeing our most vulnerable residents have opportunity to continue access to a driver’s license or state ID and today’s settlement agreement allows that purpose to be fulfilled. That said, we believe there is more work to do to ensure New Mexico residents aren’t left out due to fingerprinting requirements and other obstacles.”