Human rights advocates have filed a lawsuit claiming Georgia illegally discriminates against citizens of Puerto Rican descent who seek driver’s licenses.
The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Atlanta, says the state’s Department of Driver Services seizes the identity documents of Puerto Ricans and often fails to award licenses in a timely manner. It also says the department requires Puerto Ricans to take extra driver tests and to answer “trick” questions about Puerto Rico to prove they are from the U.S. territory.
The lawsuit says the Department of Driver Services is violating due process, equal protection and civil rights provisions of federal law and the U.S. Constitution.
“Puerto Ricans who are trying to start a new life in Georgia deserve access to the same benefits that are afforded to other citizens of the United States,” said Jorge Vasquez, an attorney with the group LatinoJustice.
Spokeswoman Susan Sports said the Department of Driver Services has not been served with the lawsuit. She said the issuance of all licenses — including those for applicants from Puerto Rico — are handled in accordance with state and federal law.
The agency’s actions affect more than a person’s ability to drive. Nearly 700,000 new voters registered through the Department of Driver Services in 2017 and 2018.
LatinoJustice and the Southern Center for Human Rights filed the lawsuit on behalf of Kenneth Caban Gonzalez, a Hinesville resident who was born in Puerto Rico. He applied for a Georgia driver’s license in October 2017 but still hasn’t received one.
The lawsuit says Caban Gonzalez submitted a valid Puerto Rico birth certificate and driver’s license, his Social Security card and a current pay stub to demonstrate his lawful status and Georgia residency.
The lawsuit says the department retained the driver’s license, birth certificate and Social Security card and told him he would be notified when he could pick them up. A few days later, he received a text from the department asking him to come to the Savannah office for an interview.
When he arrived, he was arrested on allegations that he had provided false documents. He was later charged in Liberty County Superior Court with one count of first-degree forgery and another of making false statements. Those charges are still pending.
Caban Gonzalez later obtained a new birth certificate and Social Security card and used them to obtain a state ID card in January. But the department still hasn’t issued him a driver’s license — making it hard for him to get a job, take his newborn daughter to the doctor and make other trips.
The lawsuit says the department has not explained why it believes Caban Gonzalez’s original documents are false. Nor has it explained why it provided an ID card but not a driver’s license.
The lawsuit says Georgia does not afford the same reciprocity to Puerto Rico driver’s licenses that it extends to licenses issued by U.S. states and the District of Columbia.
It cites a Department of Driver Services directive requiring the documents of Puerto Ricans to be reviewed for fraud. Unlike other out-of-state applicants, they also must successfully pass knowledge and road exams before a license is issued.
“They’re treated as if they have to start from square one,” said Atteeyah Hollie, an attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights. “That’s not the case for people who are moving from Alabama or Mississippi or a state on the U.S. mainland.”
The agency directive, according to the lawsuit, also requires applicants born in Puerto Rico to answer questions about the island not asked of mainland residents — such as “what a meat filled with plantain fritter” is called, the location of a specific beach and “the name of the frog (that is) native only to PR.”
The lawsuit seeks class-action status on behalf of Puerto Ricans who have been discriminated against. Among other things, it also seeks an injunction requiring the department to issue licenses to those with valid Puerto Rico driver’s licenses and the return of personal documents to applicants.
Stay on top of what’s happening in Georgia government and politics at www.ajc.com/politics.