NEWBURYPORT (CBS) – Jennifer Norris opened the letter from the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles and instantly knew there was some kind of mistake with her driving record.
The letter informed Norris that the RMV would be revoking her license on April 6 because of an outstanding issue hundreds of miles away in Texas.
“I’ve never driven in Texas and I’ve never lived in Texas,” the Newburyport resident said. “I’ve lived in Massachusetts for 25 years.”
Norris figured it would be an easy mistake to correct with the RMV. She was wrong.
Over a two-week period, Norris ping-ponged between state officials in Massachusetts and Texas. In-person visits to RMV offices in Haverhill and Lawrence did not help, either.
Norris kept hearing the same thing: She needed to obtain a “Not the Same Person” letter from the Texas Department of Public Safety to clear her driving record and renew her license. Maintaining a driving privilege is crucial to the registered nurse, who visits patients in their homes.
“Being threatened to have a revoked license is incredibly anxiety-provoking and frustrating,” Norris said.
As she continued to hit roadblocks, Norris spotted an I-Team investigation from 2015, which detailed how a Bolton driver endured a similar bureaucratic nightmare for someone else’s traffic tickets in New Mexico.
Norris said the article almost mirrored her experience.
“I’m looking for your help so I do not lose my license and therefore lose my job,” she wrote in an email to the I-Team. Norris’ license was flagged during a search of the National Driving Register (NDR), a database overseen by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
The intention of the NDR is to keep problem drivers with a suspended or revoked status in one state from trying to shop for licenses in other states.
So with a clean driving record, why was Norris facing the threat of revocation?
The I-Team did some digging into the Texas court case cited in the documents Norris received. It turned out a woman in Corpus Christi has the same first and last name as Norris. Their birthdates are identical, too.
However, that is where the similarities end. The I-Team discovered the family court case is related to an incapacitated woman who will never have the ability to drive, and has never even possessed a license. The woman’s court-appointed guardian confirmed those details when the I-Team reached her by phone.
“Everyone I tell this story to can’t believe this is happening,” Norris said.
Congressman Michael Capuano said the Newburyport driver’s experience reveals ongoing problems with the federal database. The Massachusetts lawmaker first called for changes after the I-Team original report in 2015.
“We still have work to do,” Capuano said. “It shouldn’t be this difficult to get something this obvious fixed.”
In response to the I-Team’s recent findings, Capuano wrote a letter to NHTSA Deputy Administrator Heidi King, asking what the agency is doing to reduce instances of mistaken identity.
“I remain concerned drivers are stuck in a bureaucratic nightmare that might threaten their livelihood and the steps NHTSA is taking to tighten the program do not seem to be adequate,” the letter said.
A NHTSA spokeswoman said the agency made upgrades to its computer matching program several years ago, which have helped reduce chances of misidentification. NHTSA is also working with states to create a standardized “Not the Same Person” letter to make it easier for innocent drivers to distinguish themselves from problem drivers.
Drivers with common names who have misidentification issues can contact the NDR customer service number: 202-366-4800.
Capuano also criticized the RMV’s initial response to Norris when she tried to get the issue resolved. Emails with an RMV staffer show the agency repeatedly told Norris to take up the issue with Texas officials, saying the situation was outside of their control.
“Simply patting drivers on the head and saying, ‘Too bad, this is your problem.’ I think that’s an inappropriate answer all the time,” Capuano said.
A spokeswoman defended the RMV’s customer service to Norris and added that the agency does not have the power to correct driving records in other states. In this case, the fix had to come from folks in Texas.
The I-Team asked how often the mistaken identity problem affects Massachusetts drivers, but the RMV said it does not track those statistics.
With the I-Team’s help, Norris finally obtained the “Not Same Person” letter to clear her name in the national database. The nurse no longer has to worry about losing her license.
However, Norris can’t believe how many roadblocks she hit trying to prove her innocence. It remains a mystery why the guardianship case in Corpus Christi ever connected to her record in the first place. After the I-Team’s inquiry, NHTSA says it is reaching out to Texas to get answers to that question.
“The system is greatly flawed,” Norris said. “This takes time out of your work and your family. I hope it doesn’t happen to anyone else.”
Ryan Kath can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter or connect on Facebook.