Lawsuit over driver’s license application leads to demotions

Lawsuit over driver’s license application leads to demotions
A lawsuit claimed Georgia was holding residents of Puerto Rico to more stringent requirements for driver's licenses than it does transplants from American states or the District of Columbia.

Two Georgia Department of Drivers Services staff have been demoted or fired after an investigation found they mishandled the driver’s license application of a Puerto Rican man, according to the agency.

A DDS internal investigation conducted by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation was launched earlier this year after Kenneth Caban Gonzalez filed a federal lawsuit against the state agency in July. The suit claimed the state was holding residents of Puerto Rico to more stringent requirements than it does transplants from American states or the District of Columbia. Puerto Rico is a commonwealth and unincorporated territory of the United States.

When Caban Gonzalez tried to obtain a Georgia driver’s license in 2017, a state DDS inspector took his documents, quizzed him via an interpreter, and then had him arrested for forgery, said Jorge Luis Vasquez Jr. of LatinoJustice, a non-profit advocacy group. Vasquez is an attorney representing Caban Gonzalez.

In a statement sent to CNN on Tuesday, the DDS said a senior manager was fired and another was demoted to a non-law enforcement role earlier this month as a result of the internal investigation into Caban Gonzalez’s case and the agency’s handling of documents from Puerto Rican drivers.

The employees’ actions “caused irreparable damage to the image and credibility of DDS and the State of Georgia,” DDS Commissioner Spencer R. Moore wrote in letters addressing the employees that were shared with CNN by a source close to the investigation.

A report, provided to CNN by the same source, details the results of the investigation and says the employees mishandled the driver’s license application of Caban Gonzalez and another individual in the Hinesville, Georgia DDS office.

The DDS said the investigation concluded that employees failed to follow protocol and that officials were already making changes.

Some of the changes involve enhanced transparency and oversight, more timely updates for customers and additional training for employees, the agency said.

“We applaud the recent steps put forth by the Georgia DDS to hold the people accountable for denying Kenneth and those in similar positions their driver’s licenses and for mandating greater transparency in the investigative process. We must do more to make sure that what happened to Kenneth never happens again,” Vasquez, the attorney representing Caban Gonzalez, said in a statement on Tuesday.

A spokesperson for LatinoJustice said Tuesday that Caban Gonzalez still has not yet received his Georgia driver’s license. Caban Gonzalez charges were dismissed in March, the GBI report said.

His lawsuit is pending in federal court.

Puerto Rican drivers were quizzed, lawsuit says

In his lawsuit, Caban Gonzalez said employees used a document titled “Puerto Rican Interview Guide” to quiz Puerto Rican drivers about fritters, frogs, hillbilly hats, baseball players and customs on their native island.

In the DDS statement released on Tuesday, Commissioner Moore noted the “Puerto Rican Interview Guide” was originally provided before 2003 by the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service, the law enforcement and security branch of the agency. He said it “should never be used by DDS staff, under any circumstances, as it is not an authorized DDS document,” according to the statement.

Caban Gonzalez applied for a driver’s license in Liberty County, in southeast Georgia, on October 31, 2017, after meeting the state’s 30-day residency requirement, according to his lawsuit.

He had been pulled over with his Puerto Rico license, for which he was cited and fined $681 — a penalty he cannot pay without a job, according to his lawyers.

When he tried to obtain a Georgia driver’s license, he was subjected to special requirements directed solely toward Puerto Ricans, the lawsuit alleges.

The lawsuit claims the “Puerto Rican Interview Guide” was used to quiz applicants on the archipelago. Among its queries:

• How long is the San Juan-Fajardo train ride? (There is no train.)

• Who is Roberto Clemente? (The Puerto Rican-born baseball legend.)

• What is the name of the frog native only to PR? (Coqui.)

• What is a pava? (A straw hat worn by small farmers or hillbillies.)

• What is alcapurria? (A meat-filled plantain fritter.)

• How do you celebrate San Juan Day? (Walk backward into the ocean at midnight.)

A note in the interview guide says the questions are designed to ferret out fraud.

“While this guide can in no way positively determine if a person was born in or lived in Puerto Rico, it will help determine if the individual has a normal base of knowledge of their claimed birthplace,” it says.

As part of his 2017 application for a driver’s license, Caban Gonzalez submitted a birth certificate issued in 2014, a valid Puerto Rico driver’s license, a pay stub and his Social Security card to DDS, which the state kept.

The month after Caban Gonzalez applied for his license, a DDS inspector texted him asking him to visit the department’s office in Savannah for an interview, but after Caban Gonzalez arrived and took his exam, he was arrested, Vasquez said.

He was accused of forgery and making false statements, the lawsuit said.

There are likely more than 40 Puerto Ricans with similar claims, according to the lawsuit. Forty plaintiffs are required to initiate a class-action lawsuit.

More than 93,000 Puerto Ricans live in Georgia, according to the 2017 census estimate.

CNN’s Jamiel Lynch contributed to this report.