BOSTON (CBS) – When he first opened the letter from the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles, David Barnes assumed it had to be a fake.
The letter warned his license would be revoked on May 10th if he did not clear up two driving violations in New Mexico.
Barnes had never driven in New Mexico. In fact, he had literally only stepped foot in the southwestern state for a few minutes, during a family vacation to the Four Corners Monument a couple years ago.
One of the infractions dated back to 1994; the other 2008.
“It was hard to believe,” Barnes said. “I couldn’t understand how I could possibly have issues in New Mexico having never driven there.”
But a call to the RMV revealed the tickets were real. The Bolton resident’s name had apparently been flagged during a search of the National Driving Register (NDR), a database used by all states.
The intention of the NDR is a good one: to keep tabs on drivers whose privilege to operate a motor vehicle has been revoked, suspended or denied for serious highway safety-related incidents.
The idea is to keep those drivers from license shopping. For instance, if someone’s license is revoked in Massachusetts for drunk driving, that person won’t be able to obtain a license in New Hampshire or Rhode Island.
However, as Barnes would soon find out, untangling a case of mistaken identity put him in the driver’s seat of a bureaucratic nightmare.
The I-Team helped Barnes track down the 1994 citation from the Gallup Municipal Court in New Mexico. The ticket was issued to a David Barney. He had the same birthday and similar name as David Barnes, but the social security number listed on the citation was not a match.
It gets more puzzling from there. The 2008 violation inexplicably tied to Barnes’ record in the NDR was for someone named Juan Bustamante. Aside from the obvious name difference, court records indicated Bustamante had cleared that violation in 2011.
“It makes absolutely no sense,” Barnes said.
End of story, right? Not exactly.
Barnes spent the next two weeks exchanging emails and phone calls with registry workers and court officials in two different states. He even created a spreadsheet to keep track of the timeline and different answers he kept getting about how to resolve the problem.
The Massachusetts RMV requested something it referred to as a “not same person” letter with Barnes’ date of birth, social security number, and NDR reference number to prove the violations were not actually his responsibility.
However, employees at the New Mexico Motor Vehicle Division indicated that type of documentation would have to come from the local courts. The court officials said they did not ever deal with the NDR.
“So I have people at each end basically pointing their fingers at each other and I’m stuck in the middle about to lose my license,” Barnes said.
Defense attorney Patrick Donovan said the issue of mistaken identity seems to a growing problem. He believes the problem stems from sloppy data input in the national system.
“It’s unbelievable. It’s not him, but the burden is still on him to prove it’s not him!” Donovan said. “For Mr. Barnes to have to go through the time, the energy, the money that it could possibly cost him… it’s ridiculously absurd.”
On May 5th, Barnes took the day off work to wait in line at the RMV and meet with a hearings officer. An I-Team photographer also tagged along with a hidden camera to document the process.
During the meeting, the RMV employee told Barnes the mistaken identity issue comes up almost every day.
However, despite coming armed with a folder of documentation, Barnes still left that day with only a 30-day extension, not a resolution.
“If it weren’t so frustratingly annoying, there would almost be some humor level in it. It’s hard to believe this is actually happening,” Barnes said outside the RMV in downtown Boston.
Acting RMV Registrar Erin Devaney sat down with the I-Team to discuss the issue. She acknowledged the situation presents an enormous headache for innocent drivers like Barnes.
“But in the interest of public safety, Massachusetts can’t presume that you’re not the person the other jurisdiction is looking for,” Devaney explained.
Still, Devaney told the I-Team the example could provide a good opportunity to remind staff members which types of documentation can be accepted to clear up a case of mistaken identity, especially if another state is not amenable to the required “not same person” letter that Barnes struggled to obtain.
Devaney added the issue surfaces because all states are not entering identical data fields in the NDR. While some states might use a driver’s social security number, others may not.
“In Massachusetts, we enter as much info as possible into the NDR and we would applaud other states for following our model to avoid inexact matches in the future,” Devaney said.
Donovan, the criminal defense attorney, agreed with that solution.
“The easiest and simplest way of fixing it would be requiring states to have uniform data that goes in there,” he said.
A day after the I-Team contacted state officials, Barnes finally received word he had a clean slate and no longer faced the threat of a revoked license.
But the Bolton resident, an electrical engineering graduate from MIT, shook his head about the complicated bureaucratic mess he endured.
“I mean everyone I tell this story to cannot believe it,” he said. “And I tell them if it happened to me, there is a good chance it could happen to anybody.”