Georgia tweaks policies for Puerto Rico driver's licenses

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ATLANTA (AP) — Driver's license applicants who want to exchange a Puerto Rican license for a Georgia license no longer have to take tests or meet other requirements not imposed on other U.S. citizens, according to a lawsuit settlement agreement.

The Georgia Department of Driver Services no longer requires applicants to complete a driving or written test to transfer a valid license if they are at least 18 and meet Georgia residency and proof of identity requirements, according to the terms of the settlement agreement. The agency has also stopped using a “Puerto Rico Interview Guide” to ask applicants questions meant to prove that they are indeed Puerto Rican.

The settlement was reached in a lawsuit filed in July by Kenneth Caban Gonzalez, who was born in Puerto Rico and applied for a license after moving to southeast Georgia in 2017. It alleged Georgia treated Puerto Ricans differently from other U.S. citizen applicants — forcing them to take tests, seizing their documents for fraud reviews and quizzing them on details about the island.

Accompanied by his lawyers, his fiancee Beatriz Rodriguez, her 6-year-old daughter and their 1-year-old son, Caban Gonzalez got a driver's license Monday morning. After everything he's gone through, he said, it was very emotional and he hopes it will help him find and keep a job.

“I want to provide for my family. I want to do what I came to Georgia to do,” he said in Spanish during an interview at his lawyers' office. “I came to Georgia for a better future for me and for my family.”

The lawsuit was filed by attorneys with the Southern Center for Human Rights and LatinoJustice PRLDEF.

“We appreciate DDS’s efforts to end discriminatory policies that treated Puerto Rican applicants like second-class citizens. We trust that these reforms will bring relief and hope to Georgia’s growing Puerto Rican community,” Southern Center attorney Atteeyah Hollie said in a statement.

Caban Gonzalez applied for a driver's license in October 2017 after moving to Hinesville, in southeast Georgia. Department staff kept his Puerto Rico driver's license, his original birth certificate and his Social Security card and told him that he would be notified when to pick them up.

An investigator sent the documents to his supervisor, saying they did not appear to be legitimate. When Caban Gonzalez went to retrieve his documents in November 2017, he was accused of providing false documents and was arrested.

Agency staff learned two weeks later that the verification process it used for Puerto Rican documents was no longer valid and federal authorities confirmed in the summer of 2018 that Caban Gonzalez's documents were legitimate, according to a Georgia Bureau of Investigation report. But the charges against him weren't dropped until last March.

The GBI internal affairs investigation, which found "deficiencies in investigative procedures” and a failure to follow department protocol, was prompted by Caban Gonzalez's lawsuit. The Department of Driver Services fired one manager and demoted another as a result of its findings, according to an agency statement in December.

That statement also detailed changes made as a result of the investigation, many of which are mirrored in the terms of the settlement agreement, which was signed Jan. 31. Those include more transparency and notification surrounding investigations into suspected fraud and a prohibition on the use of the “Puerto Rico Interview Guide.” The agency also agreed to prominently post its nondiscrimination policy and to provide staff training.

While the agency has already made changes, it has also agreed to propose language to change state regulations to reflect the changes in reciprocity for U.S. territorial driver's licenses.

The license transfer changes outlined in the agreement also apply to applicants from other U.S. territories, including Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands.

The state also agreed to pay $40,000 to Caban Gonzalez and $60,000 to his attorneys.

Caban Gonzalez's attorneys said Monday that they were pleasantly surprised by how quickly the Department of Driver Services took action to address the problems raised by the lawsuit. They said they will continue to monitor the situation but are optimistic about the agency's commitment to the changes.

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