Kenneth Caban Gonzalez, and his fiancee, Beatriz Rodriguez, talk Monday about his experience with the Georgia Department of Driver Services. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
Photo: Steve Schaefer
Photo: Steve Schaefer

Georgia eases driver’s license rules for Puerto Ricans, others

The Georgia Department of Driver Services has agreed to make it easier for Puerto Ricans and applicants from other U.S. territories to get driver’s licenses under the terms of a federal lawsuit settlement announced Monday.

The department agreed to allow residents from the territories — who are U.S. citizens — to transfer their driver’s licenses to Georgia without taking driving or written tests. That’s what people who move to Georgia from the 50 U.S. states are already allowed to do.

In addition, the DDS will no longer require Puerto Ricans to take a test of island geography, politics and culture to prove they are from that territory.

The settlement could make it easier for thousands of people to drive, get jobs and otherwise settle in Georgia. And it ends the long legal ordeal of Kenneth Caban Gonzalez, a Puerto Rico native who sought a driver’s license in 2017 but wound up in jail, wrongly accused of using a fraudulent birth certificate to obtain a license.

Though DDS offices are normally closed on Mondays, the agency opened its Conyers office to grant Caban Gonzalez a driver’s license.

“It was very emotional,” Caban Gonzalez told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Monday. He planned to drive home to Hinesville.

In a written statement, the DDS confirmed the changes in policy.

“The top priority at DDS is to provide efficient customer service while following all Georgia and federal rules and requirements,” Commissioner Spencer R. Moore said. “We welcome instances like this where opportunities for improvement can be made after additional assessment of existing law.”

The groups Latino Justice and the Southern Center for Human Rights filed a federal lawsuit last summer on behalf of Caban Gonzalez. After arriving in Georgia from Puerto Rico, he sought a driver’s license at the DDS office in Hinesville in October 2017.

Instead of granting him a license, the DDS confiscated his Puerto Rican driver’s license, birth certificate and Social Security card to verify they were legitimate. At the time, the DDS automatically confiscated such documents from Puerto Rican applicants to combat fraud involving island birth certificates, which had become a serious problem.

But an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation found Georgia went to unusual lengths to combat fraud, compared with other states. Among other things, DDS investigators tested hundreds of Puerto Rican applicants’ knowledge of island geography, politics and culture to determine whether they were from the territory. But the test contained incorrect or outdated answers.

At least one applicant was arrested and charged with using a fake birth certificate after performing poorly on the test. But the charges against him were later dropped after investigators determined his Puerto Rican birth certificate was authentic.

DDS investigators believed Caban Gonzalez’s birth certificate was fake. He was later arrested on charges of forgery and making false statements, and he spent three days in jail. But the AJC found the department relied on outdated federal guidance on how to spot fake birth certificates in his case.

Though the justification for Caban Gonzalez’s arrest quickly fell apart, the DDS didn’t drop the charges — even after federal officials authenticated his documents. That put Caban Gonzalez’s life on hold. Without a driver’s license, he lost a job and had a hard time finding another one.

“It was really hard because I couldn’t find work,” Caban Gonzalez said Monday. “Every time I would attain something, I would lose it.”

Prosecutors finally dropped the charges in March. And last summer DDS officials asked the GBI to investigate the case. The GBI found serious flaws in the way the DDS handled the Caban Gonzalez investigation. The agency later fired one manager and demoted another involved in his case.

Under the terms of the settlement announced Monday, Gonzalez and his attorneys will receive a combined $100,000. The DDS also agreed to implement new procedures for awarding licenses to applicants from U.S. territories.

Under those procedures, applicants age 18 and older will no longer be required to pass driving and written tests if they have a current driver’s license form a territory or one that’s been expired less than two years. They’ll have to meet state residency and all other requirements for transferring an out-of-state license to Georgia.

The new procedures apply to applicants from Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands/Saipan.

The DDS already had disavowed the Puerto Rico knowledge test used by its investigators, saying it was never an authorized document. But in the settlement, it agreed it would no longer use the document to screen applicants.

Though they’re already in effect, the new procedures must undergo the department’s regular rule-making process to become permanent.

Kira Romero-Craft, an attorney at Latino Justice, said thousands of people could benefit from the new procedures.

“There were people that were terrified to even visit the DDS office because of what happened to Kenneth,” she said. “This was definitely something that inspired fear, trepidation.”

Romero-Craft said the DDS will still be able to screen Puerto Rican birth certificates for fraud, though it may take additional training to ensure it’s done properly. She praised the agency for its handling of the issue once the lawsuit was filed.

Caban Gonzalez said he looks forward to resuming a normal life.

“I want to provide for my family,” he said. “I want to do what I came to Georgia to do. I came to Georgia for a better future for me and for my family.”

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