Fingerprints on Drivers Licenses
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OLR Research Report OLR Research Report

July 31, 1998 98-R-0877

FROM: James J. Fazzalaro, Principal Analyst

RE: Fingerprints on Drivers Licenses

You asked how many states require fingerprints to be on drivers' licenses. You also asked if this was initially a federal initiative that states began adopting when it encountered opposition on the federal level and if there is any indication that federal funds will be withheld from the states if states do not begin to require it.


No states appear to currently require fingerprints on drivers' licenses, but four require thumb or fingerprints or print scans for the license application. Several other states are considering such requirements either alone or along with things like bar codes, magnetic stripes, digital images, and other things aimed at making licenses more secure and less likely to be counterfeited.

We found no federal requirement that drivers' licenses contain fingerprints, but a 1996 federal law to improve deterrence to illegal immigration into the United States may be the source of some of the concern on this issue. This law requires state-issued drivers' licenses and identification documents to meet certain uniform federal standards in order for federal agencies to accept them as proof of a person's identity after September 30, 2000. Under one of the requirements, the driver licensing agency must either include a person's social security number on the license or identification document or, if it chooses not to require the number on the license, get it from the applicant and verify its accuracy as part of the license application. Some individuals and groups have viewed this and some other relatively new federal requirements as the precursor to using drivers' licenses as the basis of a national identity card system.


Currently, no states seem to require that a person's fingerprint actually be on his driver's license, but California, Colorado, Georgia, and Texas require it to be provided for the license application. California's law requires a legible thumb or fingerprint for original or renewal applications. The other three states' laws appear to apply the requirements to original license applications only. Unlike the other three states, Georgia's law allows its licensing agency to require the fingerprint by means of an “inkless fingerprint scanning device. ” Several states, including Alabama and Washington, recently have considered but not enacted legislation or regulations that would require fingerprints among other things. West Virginia also may be considering using either electronically scanned finger or facial images as part of its application process, but we have as yet been unable to verify this information.


There is no specific federal mandate that states must begin putting fingerprints on drivers' licenses they issue or have federal funds withheld. There may be some confusion over the meaning or concern over the implications of a 1996 federal law requiring state drivers' licenses to meet uniform standards in order to be accepted by federal agencies as proof of identity beginning October 1, 2000. A provision of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, itself part of the Omnibus Consolidated Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 1997 (P. L. 104-208), requires that (1) each state's drivers' license and identification card application process include presentation of evidence of identity meeting regulatory requirements the federal Department of Transportation must promulgate after consultation with the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, (2) the license or identification document be in a form consistent with these regulations and contain security features designed to limit tampering, counterfeiting, or other fraudulent practices, and (3) the license or identification document contain a social security number that can be read visually or by electronic means or, as an alternative, the state cannot require the social security number on the document but must require it to be submitted by every license applicant and a state agency must electronically verify its validity with the Social Security Administration (Sec. 656(b) of Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996).

The 1996 law, as well as some other recent federal requirements aimed at using social security numbers and improved databases to combat welfare fraud, enforcement of child support orders, and other matters, appears to have raised the specter for some individuals and groups who oppose government involvement in collecting personally-identifying information, that drivers' licenses will become the agency for creating a “national identity card” which could be electronically encoded with fingerprints, social security numbers, and other types of information for tracking individuals.

While state motor vehicle licensing agencies have shown increasing interest in incorporating digital images, bar codes, magnetic stripes, holograms, and other high technology features into their licenses and other identification documents, it does not appear that this has been only as a result of the federal law or over concern for federal sanctions should they not do so. Many states, as well as the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, have been concerned with improving the security of their licensing documents for quite a while. Some states also appear to have coupled this interest with the idea of using modern electronic media technology to make a license into a “smart card” that could contain things like up-to-date driver history and other relevant information. With respect to the federal drivers' license standardization requirements, the main consequence to not complying seems to be that licenses from non-complying states will not be accepted by federal executive, military, judicial, or legislative agencies for identification purposes as of October 1, 2000. This requirement is more likely to negatively affect an individual attempting to use his driver's license to get some type of federal benefit than it would the driver's licensing agency.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued its proposed regulations implementing the drivers' license requirements on June 17, 1998 and the comment period runs until August 3, 1998. The proposed regulations would require that all drivers' licenses contain these characteristics: (1) issuing jurisdiction; (2) an indicator of whether it is a license or identification card; (3) an identification number; (4) the applicant's full name, date of birth, and color photograph or image; (5) the license classification, endorsements, and restrictions; (6) an issuance and expiration date; (7) the applicant's signature and address; (7) a physical description which may include sex, height, weight, eye and hair color; and (8) one or more designated security features. Among the list of acceptable security features are ghost images or graphics, holograms, special backgrounds, a state seal or signature that overlaps the applicant's photograph or information, and machine readable technologies such as magnetic strips, an ID bar code, or a 2D bar code.

We have enclosed a copy of the federal law requiring standardization of licenses and the proposed regulation to provide the background material you requested.

JJF: pa