The Texas Dept. of Public Safety has apparently decided that if you'd like to be allowed to drive a vehicle in the state, you'd also perfectly fine with a criminal booking-style fingerprinting and having those immediately uploaded to a criminal database (that reps swear isn't a criminal database).
For years, Texas has only required a thumbprint as a minor security measure when obtaining a driver's license or ID card. That has now changed. It's unclear exactly when this went into effect (the Texas DPS made no announcement of this policy change), but longtime Dallas Morning News consumer affairs columnist, Dave Lieber, experienced it firsthand back in June.
The other day at the Texas driver’s license center, while paying for my required in-person renewal, the clerk said it was time to take my fingerprints.
Really. Quietly, earlier this year, the Texas Department of Public Safety began requiring full sets of fingerprints from everyone who obtains a new driver’s license or photo identification card. This applies to those who come in as required for periodic renewals, but it doesn’t apply to mail-in renewals.
Not only that, but since 2010, Texas law enforcement has been running facial recognition searches on DPS license photos with its Image Verification System.
When Lieber exposed this, thanks in part to a former DPS employee (who noted the full set of prints are uploaded to AFIS [Automated Fingerprint Identification Service], creating a record in criminal databases if no previous record exists), a spokesman for the agency said it was perfectly legal plus pretty awesome at fighting crime
A DPS spokesman tells me that the 9-year-old law makes a clear reference to fingerprints so the new fingerprint collection system is legal.
DPS spokesman Tom Vinger says, “It is important to understand that the purpose of this process is to combat fraud, identity theft and other criminal activity, including potentially thwarting terroristic activity. Making sure that people are who they say they are in the process of issuing government identification is a critical safeguard to protect the public against a wide array of criminal threats.”
The law Vinger refers to is Transportation Code 521.059, a lengthy bit of which he quotes in a longer response to Lieber's article
The Department is confident in its legal authority to collect 10-prints. The authority exists in current statute, including Transportation Code 521.059, (see below), and in current administrative code. The technology upgrade was funded by the Texas Legislature…
Sec. 521.059. IMAGE VERIFICATION SYSTEM. (a) The department shall establish an image verification system based on the following identifiers collected by the department:
(1) an applicant’s facial image; and
(2) an applicant’s thumbprints or fingerprints.
(b) The department shall authenticate the facial image and thumbprints or fingerprints provided by an applicant for a personal identification certificate, driver’s license, or commercial driver’s license or permit using image comparison technology to ensure that the applicant:
(1) is issued only one original license, permit, or certificate;
(2) does not fraudulently obtain a duplicate license, permit, or certificate; and
(3) does not commit other fraud in connection with the application for a license, permit, or certificate.
(c) The department shall use the image verification system established under this section only to the extent allowed by Chapter 730, Transportation Code, to aid other law enforcement agencies in:
(1) establishing the identity of a victim of a disaster or crime that a local law enforcement agency is unable to establish; or
(2) conducting an investigation of criminal conduct.
Added by Acts 2005, 79th Leg., Ch. 1108 (H.B. 2337), Sec. 4, eff. September 1, 2005.
Vinger may be correct that the DPS is allowed to collect prints as the result of this law, but it's not specifically ordered (or permitted) to collect all 10 prints. Note that the section quoted says "thumbprints or fingerprints." This "or" is important. A look at the actual amendments
to existing law shows that the DPS isn't actually required to demand a full set of prints.
The amendments also refer to 521.042(b), which states the following
(b) The application must include:
(1) the thumbprints of the applicant or, if thumbprints cannot be taken, the index fingerprints of the applicant;
So, there's no legal backing to Vinger's claims. Sure, the DPS is technically permitted
to collect all 10 prints, but only because nothing specifically forbids
this practice. But the law does not demand
all 10 prints be provided in order to obtain a license or identification card. The law only asks for thumbprints or index prints.
This is why it was rolled out quietly. The DPS has no legal "authority" to demand a full set of prints before handing out a license. What it can do, however, is ask
for them. At this point, supplying a full set of prints is purely voluntary. The DPS can't prevent you from obtaining a license if you refuse, but the whole system is set up to make it appear as though it's mandatory.
Even one of the legislators who crafted the bill
stated the intent of the law was never to allow collecting a full set of prints from every person with a Texas drivers license.
Bill co-author Juan M. Escobar, who in 2005 was a state representative from Kingsville, said he recalled the point of his bill was to prevent immigrants living in the U.S. illegally from obtaining a driver’s license.
“I think the intent of the bill was to ensure that the individual was the right person that was applying for a driver’s license,” said Escobar, now county judge in Kleberg County. “The intent was to avoid the privacy issue violation. We’ll just do the thumbprint or the index finger. That was my intent.”
He added, “If they’ve gone past the law, there’s nothing that gives them that authority.”
Escobar mentions illegal immigration. DPS rep Vinger mentions terrorism. Both used tangential hot-button issues to further the amount of information demanded by Texas in exchange for a highly-essential part of everyday life. But the DPS is now exceeding even the questionable aspects of a law predicated mostly on fear. (As Lieber points out in the comments
, even the 2005 law was partially motivated by terrorism fears, prompted by Gov. Perry's 2005 Homeland Security Action Plan
. [pdf, p. 36])
The state gave the DPS the authority to collect index prints if thumbprints couldn't be obtained. For whatever reason, the DPS -- nearly a decade later -- has decided to roll out a very imaginative reading of the 2005 statute. Worse, it's claiming its interpretation of words that aren't actually there is "legal authority." And when questioned, it's falling back on "terrorism" and but-surely-you-want-criminals-to-be-caught rationalizing.