Georgia driver’s license investigation puts a life on hold

Kenneth Caban Gonzalez puts away clean laundry for his son Noah. The Hinesville resident does not have a Georgia drivers license and has had a tough time finding a job. He does all he can around the house in support of his family while he’s unemployed. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Kenneth Caban Gonzalez wanted a driver’s license when he walked into a Georgia Department of Driver Services office two years ago. Instead, he got a warrant for his arrest and a trip to the Liberty County jail.

The department was cracking down on fake Puerto Rican birth certificates, and it believed Caban Gonzalez – who had recently arrived from the island – had submitted bogus identification with his application.

But agency records obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution raise doubts about DDS’ handling of Caban Gonzalez’s case. They also raise broader questions about whether the agency, in its zeal to crack down on immigration fraud, has needlessly burdened other Puerto Ricans — who are U.S. citizens — by confiscating their identification.

The initial justification for Caban Gonzalez’s arrest quickly proved faulty, records show. And federal officials later confirmed his documents were valid.

But DDS investigators didn’t drop the charges until long after it was clear their case was flawed. And the agency still hasn’t issued him a driver’s license.

Caban Gonzalez has paid a steep price. He spent three days in jail. He lost a job because he couldn’t drive to work. And he has struggled to support his family.

“I lost everything,” Caban Gonzalez told the AJC in an interview this week at his home in Hinesville. “I lost a lot of money.”

Caban Gonzalez has filed a federal lawsuit against DDS, saying the department illegally discriminates against Puerto Ricans. The agency declined to comment on its handling of his case, citing the lawsuit and an ongoing GBI investigation.

“It is DDS’ policy and Commissioner (Spencer) Moore’s expectation that every DDS team member treat all customers with the utmost respect while ensuring that all state and federal legal requirements are satisfied before issuance” of a license, the agency said in a statement to the newspaper.

Dozens of other Puerto Ricans have complained of poor treatment by the department. Advocates say Caban Gonzalez’s arrest has sparked fear among island natives, who worry they’ll wind up in jail if they seek a driver’s license.

“People are genuinely scared,” said Kira Romero-Craft, Caban Gonzalez’s attorney. “A lot of people are really scared to share their experiences.”

Seeking a better life

Tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans have migrated to the mainland United States in recent years. The island has been pummeled by hurricanes, economic recessions and other problems.

“It’s hard (in Puerto Rico),” Caban Gonzalez told the AJC. “There’s no jobs.”

Caban Gonzalez, 22, arrived in Hinesville, where his father lived, in August 2017. He later got a traffic ticket for driving without a Georgia license. That prompted him to seek a license on Oct. 31, 2017 – Halloween.

With his father acting as interpreter, Caban Gonzalez applied at the state Department of Driver Services office in Hinesville. He brought his Social Security card and his Puerto Rico driver’s license and birth certificate to prove his identity.

Instead of giving him a license, DDS confiscated his documents.

That was standard procedure in Georgia – a procedure designed to address the prevalence of fraud involving Puerto Rican birth certificates. Loose handling of certificates on the island meant they could be easily stolen and sold to people seeking to immigrate to the United States illegally.

To combat fraud, the department investigated Puerto Ricans seeking their first mainland driver’s license. It also required some applicants to pass a test demonstrating their knowledge of Puerto Rican geography and culture (top agency officials have said recently they didn’t know about the test).

For national security and other reasons, governments want to ensure applicants are who they say they are. But a recent AJC investigation found DDS went well beyond what licensing agencies in other states do to combat such fraud. Experts were aware of no other states that conducted automatic fraud checks or administered Puerto Rico knowledge tests.

When Caban Gonzalez applied for a license, the agency’s Hinesville office told him he’d be notified when he could pick up his documents.

“One girl, I think, told me, I need to investigate your papers,” he recalled. “I don’t know what is the process here. I say, ‘Okay, fine.’”

Basis for suspicion

In November Caban Gonzalez received a text asking him to come to DDS’ Savannah office for an interview. He thought he’d be able to pick up his documents. Instead, he was arrested and charged with first-degree forgery and making false statements.

James Woo, the Department of Driver Services investigator who reviewed his documents, believed Caban Gonzalez’s birth certificate was fraudulent. In his report, he cited inconsistencies in the layout of the document.

Certain words, dates and symbols did not align properly. And the spacing between the lines was not what it should have been.

Woo was using guidance from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on how to spot a fake Puerto Rican birth certificate. But that guidance was out of date.

On Dec. 1 – two weeks after Caban Gonzalez was arrested – Woo learned the layout features he’d used to label the birth certificate a fake “could no longer be used to authenticate Puerto Rico documents,” according to his report.

That meant the justification for Caban Gonzalez’s arrest was in doubt. DDS might have dropped the charges. Instead, it forwarded his documents to the Department of Homeland Security for authentication.

That authentication was slow in coming. Correspondence reviewed by the AJC shows the backlog of document reviews at Homeland Security stretched to four or five months. It took even longer in Caban Gonzalez’s case.

As the months dragged on, his life became precarious.

He had a good-paying warehouse job, but he couldn’t legally drive to work without a license. For a while, he caught rides with a friend. But when that friend couldn’t help him anymore, Caban Gonzalez lost his job.

Finding another job was tough, because he had no identification. His girlfriend was pregnant. They struggled financially.

Caban Gonzalez retained an attorney, who pleaded with DDS to no avail to return his documents so he could resume a normal life, documents show.

In June 2018 he obtained a new birth certificate and Social Security card. But he still couldn’t drive.

“Despite repeated requests for assistance from our client, his case was left to languish,” Romero-Craft, the attorney, told the AJC. “He continued to live under the yoke of not being able to move in a lawful manner.”

The case drags on

Finally, in July 2018, the Department of Homeland Security weighed in. The agency couldn’t vouch for Caban Gonzalez’s identity, but his documents were genuine.

But DDS investigators still seemed reluctant to drop the case. In November 2018 – four months after DDS learned Caban Gonzalez’s documents were legitimate – the Liberty County District Attorney’s Office contacted Woo, asking about the status of the case.

“We are going to withdraw those charges, correct?” Woo wrote in an e-mail to DDS Deputy Director of Investigations Lance Taylor, relaying the request for information.

Taylor’s response: “we will discuss it.”

Several weeks later, Taylor told the investigator to contact an official in Puerto Rico for help verifying Caban Gonzalez’s identity. It’s unclear whether the Puerto Rican official responded.

Last January – 15 months after he first sought a driver’s license – Caban Gonzalez went back to DDS’ Hinesville office. He needed a state identification card so he could be listed as the father of his newborn son. The department issued him an ID based on the original documents he’d submitted.

In March, the district attorney’s office dropped the charges.

DDS declined to say why it didn’t end its case against Caban Gonzalez in December 2017, when it learned the Homeland Security guidance it used to question his birth certificate was no longer valid. Nor would it say why it didn’t drop the charges when his documents proved authentic in July 2018.

DDS records show the agency was also investigating Caban Gonzalez’s roommate at the time. Homeland Security found the roommate’s Puerto Rican birth certificate and Social Security card were also genuine. But it couldn’t verify the authenticity of his Puerto Rican identification card (though it did not conclude the document was fake).

“It would be premature to speculate on any specific steps that were taken in Mr. Gonzalez’s case until the (GBI) investigation is complete,” DDS said in its written statement Wednesday. “However, it is our hope that the investigation will answer many of the questions that you have asked.”

Woo and Taylor did not respond to requests for comment.

Romero-Craft said the documents obtained by the AJC show a disregard for the way Caban Gonzalez’s life was upended.

“If what those documents suggest is true, it’s egregious what has happened to our client,” she said. “The fact that so little importance was given to the impact it has on one individual, and the impact on his life.”

The department has taken heat for its treatment of other Puerto Rican applicants.

In December 2017 – just weeks after Caban Gonzalez’s arrest – an aide to U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler, contacted the agency, asking about its practice of confiscating the documents of Puerto Rican applicants, agency records show. The aide said at least 12 people had been affected.

That same month, at a public meeting in Hinesville attended by a DDS official, dozens of people complained about poor service – and the treatment of Latinos in particular.

Cristina Talavera-Abreu, a Puerto Rico native and community advocate who attended the meeting, said she worked with several dozen people who had problems with DDS. Like Caban Gonzalez, their identification documents were confiscated.

She said many went months without identification. Caban Gonzalez’s arrest heightened their fears.

“They were terrified,” Talavera-Abreu said. “Word had spread that Kenneth was charged with felonies. They were contacted (by DDS) to come get their documents, and nobody wanted to go.”

The complaints apparently had an impact. The day after the public meeting, DDS notified employees it was changing its policy. It would no longer automatically confiscate documents and investigate first-time Puerto Rican applicants.

That didn’t help Caban Gonzalez. The department still hasn’t returned his original identification. Nor has it issued him a driver’s license.

But having filed a lawsuit, Caban Gonzalez is confident he’ll eventually get his license.

What will he do with it?

“Find a job, he said. “Try to fix my life.”

Our reporting

When Kenneth Caban Gonzalez filed a federal discrimination lawsuit against the Georgia Department of Driver Services in July, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution requested state documents related to his case. It reviewed the DDS file on its investigation of Caban Gonzalez, as well as hundreds of pages of agency correspondence. It also interviewed Caban Gonzalez and his attorney and others familiar with the case.

The documents raise questions about DDS’ investigation into whether Caban Gonzalez submitted fake identification when he applied for a Georgia driver’s license.

The newspaper also has compared Georgia’s policies on combating fraud with those of other states and interviewed experts on Puerto Rico and driver’s license fraud.

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