The Pa. Dept. of Transportation arbitrarily revoked their licenses. They fought back—and won.
Without the benefit of legal counsel, six South American immigrants waged a court battle against the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) and won the right to keep their driving privileges after the agency arbitrarily suspended them. The group didn’t plan on rising up against the agency without legal representation, but they couldn’t get a lawyer to touch their individual (or collective) cases. They were told it was better to keep quiet and not fight authority. Easier to just accept that their driver’s licenses had been revoked.
But María del Pilar Serna de Andrade, William Posada, Jesse Latorre, Pedro Camargo, Sandra González and Juan Carlos Ramírez were not prepared to do that. Their livelihoods depended on standing up to PennDOT, together. “We didn’t know each other up until this case,” says Colombian native Serna de Andrade.
The ordeal began last year when PennDOT sent out thousands of letters to drivers whose Social Security numbers did not match the Social Security Administration database. Up until this case, PennDOT had suspended almost 1,100 licenses after determining that the identification numbers on those applications were not actual socials.
According to PennDOT spokeswoman Danielle Klinger, the letters asked that individuals provide the required documentation to a driver’s license center “in order to resolve the discrepancy.” Klinger says the correspondences were sent out “in order to improve the accuracy of our records and mitigate the risk for fraud and identity theft. Ultimately, those individuals who did not verify their Social Security numbers had their driving privilege canceled.”
In May, all six of the claimants received notices that their licenses had been revoked, and that’s when Serna de Andrade decided to fight back. “I didn’t do anything illegal,” says the Northeast Philly resident who depends on driving to get to her various jobs and to take her mother to regularly scheduled doctor’s appointments. “I have always tried to follow the laws and that’s why I won’t let them take away ... this privilege that allows me to take care of myself and my family.”
For the next six months, Serna de Andrade says she tried in vain to get legal and political help. “I went to many places, talked to politicians and attorneys that promised they would help ... but left us alone in the end,” she says. “So I decided to speak out and defend my rights.”
During her months of fighting, Serna de Andrade found that she was not alone in the quest to prevent PennDOT from canceling her license.
“I’m a pizza delivery man,” says Posada, also a native Colombian. “If they take away my driver’s license they affect not only me but my family. And we’re working class people with no other means to make a living, man.”
Both Serna de Andrade and Posada have had their driver’s licenses for more than 10 years, and like the other four members of the group, they both used their Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN), a tax-processing number issued by the Internal Revenue Service, to apply for the licenses.
According to the IRS, ITINs are for federal tax reporting only, and are not intended to serve any other purpose. An ITIN does not authorize work in the U.S. or provide eligibility for Social Security benefits or the Earned Income Tax Credit. In fact, ITINs are not valid identification outside the tax system.
That was news to many in the group who met gradually while attending community meetings organized around the issue.
“At the PennDOT office they told me I could use the ITIN number to get my license 12 years ago,” Posada says. “How come they haven’t told me anything in any of the other four times I have renewed my license?”
During the case, PennDOT’s attorney, Marc Werlinsky, argued that department statute 1572 sub-section (a) establishes that a driver’s license can be canceled, among other provisions, if the licensee was not entitled to the issuance or the person failed to give the required or correct information or committed fraud in making the application or in obtaining the license.
But on March 29, a Philadelphia Common Pleas judge sided with the drivers and ruled that PennDOT had no authority to suspend their licenses, no matter what ID number they used. “They can’t cancel an existing license,” said Judge Esther R. Sylvester in court records obtained by Philadelphia Weekly.
The records reveal that Sylvester based her decision on PennDOT’s authority rather than the legality of the documents each driver used to obtain their licenses, which was what the transportation agency had challenged in the first place.
PennDOT’s Klinger assured PW that up until this case, the agency had won all previous appeals, and added that the ruling would not stop agency in the future. “It is PennDOT’s intention to appeal the …Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas rulings,” she says.
At least three of the affected say they are currently going through an immigration process called adjustment of status under the Legal Immigration Family Equity Act of 2000 (LIFE Act), signed by President Clinton. It means that they are waiting for an official resolution in their residency-application process. Serna de Andrade says she has been waiting since 1991 and just recently received a letter saying she has to resubmit her paperwork.
“They told me my documents got lost,” she says.
Because of this process, none of the affected drivers can obtain a Social Security number, something that even PennDOT raises in its statute number 1510, “An applicant shall include his Social Security number on his license application, but the Social Security number shall not be included on the license.”