ACLU and MN Community Groups Challenge Driver's License Rule That Turns I.D. into "Internal Passport"

Affiliate: ACLU of Minnesota
July 22, 2002 12:00 am

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ACLU of Minnesota
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ST. PAUL-Acting on behalf of individuals and community groups, the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union today challenged new state driver’s license restrictions requiring proof of citizenship or “”lawful presence”” in order to obtain a driver’s license.

“”The new rule fundamentally changes the purpose of a driver’s license — which is to ensure that only qualified drivers get behind the wheel — into an internal passport,”” said Chuck Samuelson, Executive Director of the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union. “”This new rule was rejected by the legislature and it is unfair to immigrants and other foreign visitors.””

Participants in the lawsuit include Jewish Community Action, the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the Somali Justice Advocacy Center, the Somali Community of Minnesota, and a broad cross-section of individual citizens and non-citizens who were either denied an opportunity to participate in the ordinary rulemaking process, or will be directly affected by the new rules, or both.

In a petition filed by the ACLU before the Minnesota Court of Appeals, the groups sought an order invalidating the rule, arguing that the rule is unconstitutional because it singles out non-citizens for different treatment in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. The ACLU also argued in legal papers that the rule is pre-empted by federal immigration law; that it conflicts with and exceeds the powers granted under the driver’s license statute; and that the use of exempt rulemaking was unwarranted and a denial of due process.

After the legislature considered and rejected new restrictions for driver’s licenses, the Commissioner of Public Safety sought permission from the Office of Administrative Hearings to adopt an emergency rule — without a hearing or public comment — requiring individuals to present documents as proof of permanent U.S. resident status, lawful short-term admission to the country or U.S. citizenship upon application for, and renewal of, a Minnesota’s driver license, permit or state identification card.

The Commissioner, Charlie Weaver, also requested that the new rule tie the license expiration date to the expiration of the visa or other short-term admission document, deny licenses to individuals whose visas would expire within 60 days, and eliminate a religious exemption to obtain a license without a photograph.

Administrative Law Judge George Beck denied Weaver’s request, finding that the Commissioner failed to establish that an immediate threat to public safety necessitated the extraordinary process of dispensing with the ordinary rulemaking process, which includes public participation and a hearing.

Chief Administrative Law Judge Kenneth A. Nickolai reversed Beck’s decision and the exempt rulemaking process was granted on June 21. While Judge Nickolai refused to allow the license expiration date to be linked to an individual’s visa expiration, he did allow the Department of Public Safety to note the visa expiration on the face of the driver’s license, thereby distinguishing those licenses as belonging to non-citizens. The rule went into effect on July 8.

The ACLU noted that the purpose of a driver’s license is to ensure that the individual is a qualified driver and that it was never intended to be a tool for enforcing immigration laws. Because immigration laws are so complicated, police and local governments generally do not enforce them. Police do not have the authority to detain somebody simply because they suspect that the individual has violated the civil provisions of the Immigration and Naturalization Act.

Volunteer attorney Todd Noteboom is representing the ACLU in this matter.

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