Last week, one Colorado man received an early Christmas gift from an unlikely source: the state's Department of Motor Vehicles.
We're not identifying the man because of his precarious personal situation. But he had previously been rebuffed eleven times over a period of three years or so in his attempt to get a Colorado identification card despite loads of documentation proving who he was, including an ID from the State of Louisiana. Colorado's refusal to issue a card based on this material led directly to him losing his job and winding up in a homeless shelter, where he contracted an infection that he describes as potentially life-threatening.
But last week, thanks to a change in policy by the DMV related to the REAL ID Act described below and crucial help from guardian angels at Colorado Legal Services, which works on behalf of low-income Coloradans, he finally got his ID, leaving him feeling happily dazed. "I can't believe how easy it was," he says. "It went the way it should have the first time."
He isn't the only person in Colorado for whom the simple act of applying for an ID or driver's license turned into a nightmare. In September, we detailed what we described as the worst DMV horror story yet, about a woman who was repeatedly rejected in her attempt to get a state driver's license. The woman possessed a driver's license from Arizona and plenty more, but she was only presented with an ID after obtaining and presenting a copy of her 1980s-era license to marry a man she'd since divorced.
The rub involved the REAL ID Act, which Congress passed in 2005 in a post-9/11 effort to enhance security among air travelers. Plenty of states have been tardy about becoming REAL ID-compliant — among them Arizona — and that's had substantial repercussions in places like Colorado, where REAL IDs are required.
The situation was similar for the man at the center of this post, but with a twist. Louisiana instituted REAL ID in 2016, but the man has lived in Colorado for five years, with most of it spent in Central City. As such, his card bore a stamp reading "NOT FOR FEDERAL OFFICIAL USE," showing that it pre-dated REAL ID compliance. Under Colorado DMV policy, it could not simply be exchanged for Colorado identification or driver's license (pending the passage of required road-safety tests).
To get a sense of what documents the Arizona woman could substitute for her non-compliant driver's license, we got into contact with Sarah Werner, communications manager for the Colorado Department of Revenue, which encompasses the state Department of Motor Vehicles.
In order "to transfer an out-of-state license to Colorado," she informed us via email a few months back, "an individual needs to prove name, date of birth, identity and lawful presence." Here's her roster of documents that prove all four of these elements:
• CO Driver License/Permit (expired less than 10 years & lawful presence and SSN on file with DMV)
• CO ID Card (expired less than 10 years & lawful presence and SSN on file with DMV)
• Out of State DL/ID with Enhancement Indicator (unexpired)
• US Passport (unexpired)
• I-551 (Permanent Resident) verified by SAVE (unexpired)
• Certificate of Naturalization w/photo (less than 20 yrs old)
• Certificate of Citizenship w/photo
If individuals don't have any of these items, Werner revealed that they'll need "a combination of documents to meet the requirement." Her roster of the most common docs are:
• U.S. birth certificate (state or county Issued) or Consular Report of Birth Abroad (name, date of birth, lawful presence)
• Out of State REAL ID document (identity)
Click to see the complete list of "other options that will meet requirements."
But that's not all. Werner stated that "in addition to the documents listed above, the individual also needs one of the documents below to show proof of their Social Security number:"
• Social Security Account Number Card (not laminated)
• W-2 Form
• SSA-1099 Form
• Non-SSA-1099 Form
• Pay stub with your name and full SSN
On top of that, a person must validate Colorado residency with any two of the documents on this DMV page.
The paperwork gathered by the former Louisiana resident over the three years or so since he initially attempted to get an ID in Central City included his old lease with a court stamp on it, bank statements, a credit card and official docs from his home state that didn't break the logjam, either. After being told that his two birth certificates (an original and a duplicate) were lacking, for instance, he obtained a third from the Louisiana registry of vital statistics that was also rejected because, he recalled, "it mentioned the city I was born in, which they said wasn't acceptable. So I got another one that didn't mention the city, and that was supposedly okay. But it wasn't enough."
More complications ensued after the man lost his lease in Central City and relocated to a Denver shelter, where, he said, "My wallet was stolen within the first ten minutes I was there." He subsequently got another copy of the Louisiana ID he'd kept in his billfold, but it wasn't a license to drive — and that was a problem, because he landed a job where piloting an automobile was required. At first, his boss overlooked this shortcoming since he emphasized that he was in the midst of getting a Colorado driver's license. But when that didn't happen, the man gave up the gig because "I couldn't take the risk. Any little accident and I'd be in so much trouble. It just wasn't worth it."
During his eleventh trip to the DMV, he brought along a friend who thought he was exaggerating the bureaucratic morass into which he'd fallen. When the friend found out the truth was as bad as advertised, he grew exasperated with the facility's personnel.
"He went off on them," the man recalled. "He asked, 'What are you doing to this person? What do you need — a certified letter from God?'"
The man subsequently started the process of trying to obtain a passport with a required photo ID even though he knew he could spend a couple of hundred dollars and still not get one. Then, he told us, "I came down with the same bacterial infection five or six people at the shelter got. They didn't know what it was and waited a little too long to get it treated, and it became debilitating. They can't walk right now." After one conversation with Westword, he headed directly to a nearby hospital.
Days later, in early December, the man connected with Colorado Legal Services — and his timing turned out to be perfect, as the DMV's Werner confirmed to us in another email exchange. "Beginning on November 28," she wrote, "the Colorado Division of Motor Vehicles revised its policy to accept Tier II documents (commonly known as Not for Federal ID Use credentials) for proof of identity as long as they are presented with other documents (such as state-issued birth certificate, Social Security card, etc.) and the name and date of birth on all documents matches. Prior to this change, these documents were not accepted." Werner added that "this policy is aligned with the federal REAL ID Act."
In other words, the man's Louisiana ID card was suddenly an acceptable form of identification — and after it was combined with everything else he'd collected, he was suddenly determined to have passed the DMV's threshold. He now has a Colorado ID, and he's saving up money to apply for a driver's license in the hope that he might be able to get his old job back.
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In the man's view, the individual responsible for this accomplishment is Carol Haller, managing attorney for the ID unit at Colorado Legal Services. And while she's too modest to accept credit, she's happy about the change in DMV policy. After all, she says, "it can be a difficult and frustrating process at times."
The identification arm of Colorado Legal Services "is a statewide project, and we get state money," she explains. "The legislature has recognized this need. We're a nonprofit law firm that represents people who are indigent or over sixty without assets, and we opened more than 1,000 cases this year in our little, tiny unit."
Much of the magic is made on Thursday mornings at a DMV branch in Lakewood, located at 1881 Pierce Street, Haller reveals. "Some of our clients haven't had IDs for ten years and gone out there many times without success. When it happens, there are a lot of hugs at that office — which isn't the typical experience."
Neither is a DMV story with a happy ending. Talk about a Christmas miracle.