Licenses coming for undocumented drivers

Juan Carlos from the Mission asks this week’s question:

Q: “I am undocumented and live in San Francisco with my family. I have a car that is registered and insured, but I don’t have a license because of my immigration status. Last year, I lost my car when I got stopped at a registration checkpoint in Marin near the canal. Because I did not have a license, my car was impounded for 30 days and I could not afford to pay the towing and storage so I lost my car. I hear that the law is changing and that I can get a license even if I am not a citizen. Is this so?”

A: I am familiar with the snatch-and-grab that was occurring for a while throughout the Bay Area. Several local enforcement agencies were conducting license checkpoints in areas with a high population of undocumented people.

As a result, as happened to you, many cars were impounded. Under California law, a driver must register with the DMV within 10 days of establishing residency in California. If you are pulled over and deemed to be a resident of California, and you cannot present a valid California driver’s license, the vehicle can be impounded. Usually, most people would receive a fix-it ticket, meaning a citation that can be addressed by corrective action such as obtaining a California driver’s license. Unfortunately, as you well know, this has not been the case for everyone.

The catch-22 for undocumented Californians is that they could own, register and insure a car that they could not legally drive because, as undocumented people, they could not receive a California driver’s license. Existing law requires that an applicant for a California driver’s license submit proof that he or she is lawfully in the U.S.

Thankfully, this has now changed with the passage of Assembly Bill 60 introduced by Assemblyman Luis Alejo. AB 60 has changed the California Vehicle Code to now permit the issuance of a driver’s license to people who can’t demonstrate that their presence in the United States is lawful if they meet all other qualifications for a license and provide satisfactory proof to the DMV of their identity and California residency.

The law was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown on Oct. 13 and goes into effect Jan. 1, 2015. If the DMV can draft and implement the necessary regulations and procedures prior to January 2015 the licenses could be issued sooner.

Once the process is instituted, an applicant can establish identity through presentation of one or more of the following documents: passport, valid consular identification card or birth certificate. California residency can be established by one or more of the following: lease agreement, utility bill, school transcript, property deed, property tax bill or other similar documentation.

The new class of license will be distinct in appearance from the current license and will have a recognizable feature in the area preceding the license number to distinguish it. The new license will also carry the following notice: “This card is not acceptable for official Federal purposes. This license is issued only as a license to drive a motor vehicle. It does not establish eligibility for employment, voter registration, or public benefits.”

The law prohibits the use of any information gathered by the DMV, or the license itself, to consider an individual’s citizenship or immigration status as a basis for criminal investigation, arrest or detention.

To obtain this new license, you, like every other driver, will have to pass the written and road tests. You can go to the DMV website at and find the study materials in a variety of languages to get started.

So, Juan Carlos, the good news is that California is moving forward to issue driving privileges to undocumented Californians. The bad news is that the day is not quite here. Given the passage of the law, however, many local jurisdictions have revised their policies regarding impounding vehicles of undocumented and unlicensed drivers.

Christopher B. Dolan is owner of the Dolan Law Firm. Email questions to

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