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Replacing license creates 5-month identity crisis

June 24, 1998

by JOE CROCETTA / staff photographer


Identity crisis with MVABy SHEILA HOTCHKIN / Staff Writer

Steven Hayden Brown was not himself this spring. At least, that's what Maryland's Motor Vehicle Administration and its Pennsylvania counterpart told him.

According to the two agencies, the 40-year-old Hagerstown man was actually a Pennsylvania resident with a history of drunken driving, a substance abuse counselor, a parole officer - and no chance of getting his license reissued.

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This was all news to Brown, who simply wanted to replace the license he lost to a mugger while on his honeymoon.


"I was afraid someone had gotten into my identity," he said. "And that was really scary."

A seemingly simple mistake, complicated by computer errors and endless bureaucracy, sent Brown on a five-month quest to regain his license.

Brown's problems began after he and his new bride, Cindy, docked at Martinique during a Caribbean cruise. A mugger took off with a pack that contained a small amount of cash, travelers checks and their driver's licenses, Brown said.

After spending four hours in a French-speaking police department, the couple assumed their ordeal was over. But Brown's was just beginning.

When he applied to the MVA to have his Maryland license reissued, Brown was told that the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation had asked that it be suspended.

PennDOT employees told him he had two violations in that state - driving under the influence and driving while intoxicated, both in Allegheny County. He was told to collect letters from his parole officer and substance abuse counselor.

"And I've never had either in my life," Brown said.

The Pennsylvania employee with whom he originally dealt insisted that all of the personal information matched, right down to the Social Security number and middle name.

"I know I didn't do it, but if they say I did, how can I fight this?" Brown asked.

He tried. His case was shuffled several times among at least three divisions of PennDOT. Phone lines were busy and packets of personal information were mailed, lost and remailed, Brown said.

Checking the dates of the violations, Brown obtained proof that he was not in Pennsylvania at the time.

"There's no way I could have been there," he said, "I had time cards here at work."

After nearly four months, he received a letter from the agency that said he was not the Steven Brown that collected the violations. That Steven Brown, although having the same birth date as the Hagerstown man, had a different middle initial.

Brown took the letter to the MVA and happily left with a new driver's license.

Several days later, he received a letter from the MVA saying his license had been reissued in error and the original license had expired in 1994. The message said if he did not retake all tests, his license would be revoked.

"But everything I have points to different facts," Brown said.

Brown located a copy of his stolen license that had been made by a local video store. The copy indicated that the expiration date was not 1994. He even found a state trooper who had issued him a warning for speeding last fall. "He said, 'If your license had been expired, I would have found it,'" Brown said.

Brown gave in and took and passed both the written and driving tests on Monday. "I didn't really argue much, because it's fighting the system," the frustrated Brown said.

But he has sent letters to the governors of both states and several local legislators, asking that they take a look at the current system.

"It's awful when I have to prove myself innocent," Brown said. "I always thought the system worked the other way."

Richard Scher, a spokesman for the MVA, said his department regrets the inconvenience the situation caused Brown, but stressed that such problems are not common.

According to Scher, there are 3.4 million drivers in the agency's databases. "And when you compound that with the fact that he has one of the most common last names in the state, a problem like this can occur."

Anne Patterson, a spokeswoman for PennDOT, said strict privacy laws in Pennsylvania do not allow her to discuss the specifics of a case, and that her agency prefers to work directly with customers to solve conflicts.

A new digital system introduced in Pennsylvania in late 1994 now stores photos and signatures from drivers licenses, heading off many situations similar to Brown's, Patterson said.

"In Pennsylvania, it's very uncommon anymore," she said. "Although I can't say they don't happen."

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