Arizona Driver's License Rules Change Drastically for REAL ID

Women in Muslim dress at a metro Phoenix Motor Vehicle Division Office this week.
Women in Muslim dress at a metro Phoenix Motor Vehicle Division Office this week.
Ray Stern

Eyeglasses must now come off for Arizona driver's license and identification photos, but religious head scarves or hats are okay if worn "daily," according to state Motor Vehicle Division policies designed to meet national REAL ID Act requirements.

The latest rules make it easier for a new, digital facial-recognition system, which in turn helps deter fraud and meet one of the criteria for REAL ID, says Ryan Harding, a spokesman for the Arizona Department of Transportation.

The national standard for driver's licenses passed by Congress in 2005 is just months away from making current Arizona IDs less usable. At some time in 2016 that's yet to be announced, non-compliant driver's licenses or IDs won't be accepted at airports for domestic flights. Fliers will have to use alternate government-issued ID, like passports. Restrictions already are in place at military installations, nuclear power plants, and certain other federal facilities.

Arizona Driver's License Rules Change Drastically for REAL ID
ADOT

Arizona expects to offer a new federally approved driver's license to those who want it by April, Harding says.

Because of paranoia about the new license possibly looking like a stand-in for a national ID card, the Arizona Legislature had banned implementation of the system for years with a law signed by former Governor Janet Napolitano. Like several other states, it's been granted an extension by the feds to get with the program; a law passed by earlier this year reversed the ban, making compliance possible. 

Old-school driver's licenses still will be valid ID for voting, opening a bank account and other necessities of life, but many Arizona residents will want to upgrade by obtaining one of the REAL ID-compliant licenses at a local MVD office. Everyday eyeglass wearers will notice one change — the facial-recognition software requires a naked face. MVD officers now tell customers to remove their spectacles because of a rule created last year in preparation for the new system.

MVD officials "knew we were going to need a high-quality image of the individual's face," Harding says.

While the software is sensitive to eyeglasses, it doesn't care about hijabs or other religious garb. Religious accommodations have long been made for some MVD customers, but new rules added in April state that religious wear "cannot conceal facial features, such as the eyes, nose or mouth and cannot obscure or cast shadows upon the person's facial features."

Beards and mustaches are fine, however.

Also new this year: The religious garb, including hats and scarves, must be worn "daily" by the person in the ID photo.

The latter rule follows a complaint letter last October to Arizona U.S. Senator Jeff Flake, in which a client wrote of getting "forced to remove my religious article of clothing while getting my photo taken." The MVD redacted the person's name in records released to New Times.

MVD Director Stacey Stanton wrote the person a courteously worded letter, explaining that "our research indicates that you placed a metal bucket on your head while at the camera station and were advised that you could not wear the bucket in your photo."

Stanton told the client that he or she was denied because of a rule banning head coverings, except for religious or medical reasons. The customer didn't state a religious affiliation. MVD added the "daily" rule a few months later.

The REAL ID license and identification will require a new photo every eight years instead of the MVD's typical 12.

Using a "Photo First" policy, if a customer needs a picture taken for a particular transaction, it's taken right away. While the person waits for service, the computer runs the photos through a national database. If the software recognizes the person, it may mean the customer has committed fraud, has multiple Ids and names, or even is an ISIS sleeper agent. Or It could be a computer glitch — humans make the final decision if the computer offers any matches.

What other government databases will examine the photos isn't clear.

The American Civil Liberties Union says the system turns driver's licenses "into a form of national identity documents" with a "tremendously destructive impact on privacy," and supports repealing REAL-ID.


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