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Like many undocumented aliens in South Florida, Jorge Castaneda of Lake Worth faced a serious transportation problem. He needed to be able to drive to get to his auto mechanic job, but Florida does not issue driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. So Castaneda found a company on the Internet, Brooklyn, N.Y.-based International Automobile Association Inc., that advertises the sale of official-looking “international driver’s licenses.” The company says such licenses are legal and meet the “United Nations Convention On Road Traffic requirements.” Castaneda mailed the company a $40 money order, a photocopy of his driver’s license from his native Honduras, and a passport-size photo. About a week later, he received his purported license in the mail. But state regulators and law enforcement authorities say such so-called international licenses have no legal foundation. Still, they admit they’ve done little so far to crack down on marketing and sales. “At best they’re useless,” said Robert Sanchez, spokesman for the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. “At the worst, it can get you in trouble with the law.” That’s exactly what happened to Castaneda. Earlier this year, he got into an auto accident in Juno Beach. A Florida Highway Patrol officer questioned him, examined his documents and issued him three traffic tickets. Castaneda, 20, was cited for causing the crash, not having auto insurance and driving without a valid license. The officer believed that the so-called international driver’s license was bogus. Castaneda — a pseudonym used in this article because he fears being caught and deported by U.S. immigration authorities — is far from the only undocumented alien who has fallen victim. The only legally authorized international driver’s permits — not the same as licenses — available in the United States are obtained through the AAA and the National Automobile Club. They are sold only to holders of valid U.S. state driver’s licenses, for use in driving while visiting other countries, according to officials with the state Department of Highway Safety Motor Vehicles. Foreign visitors to the United States can purchase a legitimate international driver’s permit, based on their driver’s license in their home countries. But they can only buy them through authorized agencies back home. To drive in the United States, they must carry the lawful international permit, along with the driver’s license from their home countries. Many illegal immigrants in the United States, however, lack the money, knowledge or the foresight to obtain a valid international permit. But even if they had such a permit, Florida law requires that anyone who establishes residency in the state have a valid Florida driver’s license to drive here. The law makes no distinction between legal and illegal residents, state officials said. That means that having a valid international driver’s permit from their home countries wouldn’t suffice for undocumented aliens residing in Florida. And illegal immigrants don’t have the U.S. passport, alien registration card or other documents Florida requires to apply for a license, state officials said. State law defines a resident as a person who has their principal place of domicile in the state for six consecutive months. Nonresidents who accept employment in the state must apply for a state driver’s license within 30 days of starting work. LICENSES FOR ALIENS OPPOSED Marketers of the international driver’s licenses sell the documents over the Internet and at many stores and businesses in South Florida. They target Hispanic immigrants in particular. They are advertised in many Spanish-language newspapers, including papers owned by the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post. The sellers of these so-called licenses are violating Florida Statute 877.18, which makes it a third-degree felony to issue or sell phony identification containing a date of birth, said Maj. David Myers of the Florida Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco. Adding another level of complexity, some marketers of international licenses also sell their customers auto insurance. State regulators contend that insurance companies may not honor policies once they discover the insurance was issued on false or incomplete documentation. It will ultimately be up to the discretion of the insurance companies, regulators say. Still, having an insurance policy, even if it was purchased based on improper documentation, enables illegal immigrants to register their vehicles with the state. The trade in these documents thrives due to the failure of state and federal policy-makers to address major issues regarding immigration. This country tacitly allows undocumented aliens to live and work here, but does not offer them key legal privileges, such as driving. State Sen. Rudy Garcia, R-Hialeah, recently introduced a bill, backed by Gov. Jeb Bush, to allow illegal immigrants to obtain a Florida driver’s license. That bill has stalled in the Legislature in the face of sharp anti-immigration sentiment and concerns about national security. California last year passed a law allowing illegals to obtain driver’s licenses, but that was revoked within months at the insistence of new Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. “It’s better to get these people into the system rather than leave them adrift,” Sen. Garcia said in an interview. “Desperate people feed the market” for the licenses and other documents. The trade in such licenses also has grown because companies and individuals selling them have little reason to fear a run-in with law enforcement. The illegal immigrants are unaware, complicit or too scared to complain to authorities. And law enforcement and regulatory officials in Florida so far have paid little or no attention to the problem. When they do, they generally target the illegal immigrants rather than the sellers. “The wrong people are being charged,” said Miami attorney Brian Tannebaum, who chairs The Florida Bar’s traffic court rules committee. “The real issue is the sale of false ID.” ‘FORMIDABLE NETWORK’ The number of international driver’s license sold to South Florida drivers is almost impossible to quantify. Most of the purchasers are illegal immigrants — of which Florida had an estimated 337,000 as of January 2000, according to the federal government. County consumer affairs advocates in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade say they have not received any complaints about the driver’s licenses. But all agreed that official complaints were unlikely to be filed by illegal immigrants. In 2002, the latest year for which statistics are available, Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties recorded nearly 78,000 traffic citations for “no, improper or expired” drivers’ licenses. But no record is kept of how many of the citations were for international licenses, which are not valid in Florida. And when bogus licenses and insurance policies are discovered by authorities, generally as a result of traffic stops, the information falls into a bureaucratic limbo. Prosecutors and police say they have no guidance on how to handle the documents or what agencies to refer violators to. Maj. Myers, the state government’s leading expert on phony identification, estimates that thousands of these bogus driver’s licenses are sold in Florida annually. The AAA says that nationally, more than a half-million are sold every year. In the courtroom of Palm Beach County Court Judge Nelson Bailey, who oversees arraignment of criminal traffic cases, prosecutors, public defenders and court translators report coming across as many as 30 of the bogus international driver’s licenses each week. “There appears to be a formidable network targeting the Hispanics that enter the country illegally,” said court translator Sergio Casaine, who has made a special effort to track the problem. “They’re vulnerable because most are not well-educated.” Some sellers of these so-called international licenses claim that these documents are valid. “Drive lawfully in Florida and the World,” reads an ad in El Nuevo Herald placed by Hollywood Underwriters, a Hollywood firm that sells the so-called licenses along with auto insurance. “Don’t take a chance. Sleep well.” The licenses are “legal,” said George Castellon, co-owner of Hollywood Underwriters, in an interview. “But some police don’t know better.” While some immigrants believe they are buying a legitimate international license, others know the documents are dubious. “Most people know they’re no good but are hopeful they will help them,” said David Skovholt of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center in Miami. “They take chances because they’re desperate.” Jorge Castaneda seems to confirm that. When asked if he believed his license was valid for driving in Florida, he said through an interpreter that it is “common knowledge” in the immigrant community that the international licenses are “good for certain things.” STATE LACKS RESOURCES? South Florida’s large and growing population of Hispanic immigrants is an easy mark for sellers of international licenses, which go for as much as several hundred dollars each. Companies selling them include One Stop All Solutions Inc. in West Palm Beach — which advertises in the Palm Beach Post‘s new Spanish-language La Palma newspaper — and Tele Envios Internacionales Inc. in Lake Worth. In Miami-Dade, one outlet for the licenses is Gestoria U.S.A., on Lincoln Road. Company officials could not be reached for comment before deadline. In a related trend, police officers in Miami-Dade also report the growing sales of bogus proof of motor vehicle insurance cards. Unlike with the driver’s licenses, those who buy proof of insurance cards clearly know they’re fraudulent. State law requires motorists to have insurance and carry cards from their insurers to prove it. BUTTERWORTH’S WARNING There’s been little or no effort to investigate and put a halt to the trade in international driver’s licenses. Immigrants caught with the driver’s licenses, however, often face penalties, the Daily Business Review found in interviews with officials from state regulatory agencies, state and local law enforcement agencies, and South Florida prosecutor’s offices. Former Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth issued a bulletin about the license scams two years ago. Butterworth’s notice warned that “Internet scam artists are bilking consumers by peddling documents purporting be an international driver license. There is such a thing as a legitimate international driver [permit], but it’s not for sale on the Internet.” His successor, Attorney General Charlie Crist, hasn’t made the licenses a priority. His office said it is not responsible for enforcement in this area. “The Department of [Highway Safety and] Motor Vehicles should be on it,” said Jo Ann Carrin, a Crist spokeswoman. She also suggested it was the responsibility of the Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco and local law enforcement agencies. For its part, the Department of Motor Vehicles says it’s aware of the problem but has been unable to do much about it. “It was a buyer beware situation,” said agency spokesman Sanchez. “I wish we could do more but we don’t have the resources.” “We have issued no general alert,” said Lt. David Kronsperger, of the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office traffic division when asked about the sale of the invalid licenses. In Miami-Dade, county police legal adviser Janet Lewis issued a bulletin more than two years ago about phony international driver’s licenses. But that warning focused on the criminal liability of the buyers, not on the sellers. Since law enforcement has not made stopping these license dealers a priority, many police officers are simply unaware of the problem. Maj. Myers of the Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco, said the international driver’s licenses are difficult to track because so many of them are sold over the Internet. “Many state troopers report finding them at traffic stops,” he said. “But it’s a new area of fraud, so many of them don’t recognize it.” Several immigration attorneys contacted for this article said they were unaware of the problem or had only heard rumors about it. Several said the issue hadn’t come to them, probably because the victims are too poor to hire attorneys to represent them in traffic court or recover any damages. Paul Geller, a Boca Raton class action plaintiff attorney, said a class action suit on behalf of the illegals is possible. “The problem is to find a defendant with deep pockets, he said. “If it’s the sellers of the licenses, you’re looking at mom-and-pop stores and fly-by-night Internet businesses.” TAGS AND REGISTRATION Two cases of illegal immigrants who purchased international licenses show how the system works and the problems it poses. Jorge Castaneda arrived in South Florida about two years ago, having paid a man $1,000 to smuggle him into South Florida from his home in Honduras. He had no entry visa. “My family needed help and work was scarce in Honduras,” he explained. The clean-cut, soft-spoken young man soon got a job at an auto repair shop in Lake Worth. He shares an apartment with a cousin and attends English classes several nights a week at a local high school. His take-home pay is about $400 a week. He tries to send $200 a month home to his parents and siblings in Honduras. Late last year, Castaneda bought a Mazda MX-3 for $1,000 from the repair shop where he works and fixed it up. While he has a valid Honduran license, he said he knew he couldn’t apply for one in Florida. Instead, a friend steered him to an Internet site specializing in the sale of what it calls international driver’s licenses. Like a number of similar Web sites, this one, operated by International Automobile Association, claimed to offer licenses valid for driving in the United States. The Web site says the license “allows the motorist to drive in different territories without experiencing difficulties with language barriers.” The site cautions that the bearers of the licenses must also carry with them their driver’s license from their home country. But it fails to note that Florida law requires immigrants who establish residency in the state to get a Florida driver’s license if they want to drive. And state law enforcement officials contend the licenses are bogus. The site’s operators, who claim they are authorized by the U.N., dispute the contention of police, prosecutors and judges that the licenses are illegal. “The police don’t like it but they’re legal to drive on [in the U.S.] for six months,” said Maria Ginzburg, who told the Daily Business Review she is an officer of the International Automobile Association, a company that also has an office in Russia, according to its Web site. “We will write them for U.S. residents and foreigners,” she added. Ginzburg said that the company makes no effort to contact foreign agencies to confirm the validity of foreign licenses because “they aren’t passports.” Another illegal immigrant who purchased one of these international driver’s licenses was a 21-year-old Mexican national who appeared in Palm Beach County Traffic Court in West Palm Beach earlier this month for driving without a license. When he was stopped by a police officer in the town of Palm Beach, the young man — who did not want to be identified or interviewed for this article — was found with one of the international driver’s licenses, which he told the court he purchased for $200 from Hollywood Underwriters in Hollywood. When a Daily Business Review reporter called Hollywood Underwriters without identifying himself as a journalist and asked about its international driver’s licenses, the person answering the phone, who identified himself as an employee named John Garcia, explained that such a license enabled the holder to legally drive in Florida. Garcia said purchasers could obtain the licenses in five to eight working days, after presenting a driver’s license from their country of origin, two passport-size photos and payment of $230. He explained that purchasers could use the license to get other needed documents as well as insurance coverage. “You can use it to get a tag, registration and insurance,” he said. In a subsequent phone interview, George Castellon, a co-owner of Hollywood Underwriters, said his company doesn’t “sell” the licenses, but only “processes” them. He said his company merely collects the payment for the companies that produce the international driver’s licenses and dispenses the documents to purchasers. The young Mexican also told the court that he also purchased auto insurance from Hollywood Underwriters for $700. Asked about that, Garcia explained that Hollywood Underwriters sells auto insurance polices underwritten by Ocean Harbor Casualty Insurance and by the Florida Joint Underwriters Association, both based in Tallahassee. Both companies offer “nonstandard” policies to high-risk customers whom better-known companies like Progressive and Allstate don’t serve. Nonstandard policies typically are more expensive and offer skimpier coverage. While such policies normally would be legitimate, any policies sold on the basis of bogus driver’s licenses may be as worthless as the licenses, according to the Florida Department of Financial Services, which regulates insurance. Castellon said the insurance policies his firm sells are bona fide because some carriers will write policies to holders of foreign driver’s licenses. When asked whether such licenses violate Florida law that requires residents to have a valid state driver’s license, he declined comment. Like the young Mexican in traffic court, Jorge Castaneda also bought auto insurance, but only after acquiring his international driver’s license from the International Automobile Association. To defend himself at his arraignment last month on the charge of driving without auto insurance, Castaneda, using his so-called license, said he went to an Insurance World store in Lake Worth and purchased an insurance policy for $1,000, underwritten by Ocean Harbor Casualty. Florida law does not require a person to possess a valid Florida driver’s license to purchase auto insurance. But the underwriting guidelines of most carriers require agents to see a valid Florida license anyway before selling a policy. Insurance policyholders who misrepresent information to carriers or fail to provide accurate information risk having their claims denied and their coverage voided, the Florida Department of Financial Services says. Agents who knowingly issue coverage to such policyholders may have their insurance licenses revoked. Both purchaser and agent also may be found guilty of a third-degree felony in cases of misrepresentation. On top of that, if holders of these driver’s licenses like Castaneda ever try to collect on their insurance policies, the carrier isn’t obliged to pay. “Most folks have no idea [the international driver's licenses] are illegal,” said Palm Beach County Assistant Public Defender Paul Scala. “The insurers, all they’re doing is collecting the premium. If there’s ever an accident, they’ll deny the coverage. They know an illegal immigrant can’t really sue them.” Ocean Harbor’s Florida managing general agent, J.A.J. Holding Co. Inc., in Fort Lauderdale, referred all questions to attorney Lawrence Propritkin, an associate at Conroy Simberg in Hollywood. “If [Ocean Harbor's] agents knew the [driver's] licenses were false, they wouldn’t write policies on them,” Propritkin said, declining any further discussion. According to a January report by insurance rating agency A.M. Best, Ocean Harbor is a subsidiary of the Milo family trust, under the administration of Ralph Milo. The Daily Business Review was unable to contact Milo, who lives on Fisher Island in a condominium he bought for $1.5 million in 1996, according to county records. At the Florida Joint Underwriters Association, Bernice Ingram, the association’s underwriting manager, said agents selling JUA policies require customers to have either a valid Florida driver’s license or — if they have a genuine international driver’s permit — a valid license from their country of origin. Ingram said FJUA policies are canceled and refunded on a pro rata basis if the documents are discovered to be false. But, she said, “we have no way to determine if foreign licenses are genuine.” But the issue of whether illegal immigrants with a phony driver’s licenses have an enforceable insurance policy may be mooted by the fact that the policy they think they bought was never established in the first place. Because most purchasers of nonstandard insurance pay their premium in cash, Ingram said that theoretically some agents may pocket the money and never establish the policy — betting that undocumented immigrants would never take the chance of making a claim and calling legal attention to themselves. The Department of Financial Services has not looked into the issue of insurers writing auto coverage policies for holders of bogus international driver’s licenses, said spokesman Justin Glover. He said the department had no record of complaints about the practice. Even if the department wanted to start an investigation, it would face serious logistical problems. That’s because Florida currently has no system in place for tracking insurance policies back from driver’s licenses, whether they are genuine or fake, said Sanchez, of the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. After the Daily Business Review provided Glover with the names of several insurers alleged by police and prosecutors to have written policies to holders of the bogus licenses, another Department of Financial Services representative said that the department would investigate the insurance agencies and carriers involved. JUDGE, COPS CONCERNED Some government agencies have taken steps to crack down on sellers of bogus international driver’s licenses in other states. In January 2003, the Federal Trade Commission filed federal court actions against six online marketers based in a number of states; two of those companies quickly agreed to stop their sales of bogus driver’s licenses. In September, the Texas attorney general shut down two companies; those companies agreed to pay more than a half-million dollars in restitution to purchasers of the bogus driver’s licenses. But no enforcement is pending or planned in this state. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement has no investigation under way, said spokesman Tom Berlinger, who said “it just hasn’t risen to the surface of our radar screen.” Yet it has come to the attention of local police departments. Broward Sheriff’s Office spokesman Jim Leljedal said fake licenses were “occasionally” reported by sheriff’s deputies. “The situation is fluid and certainly not improving,” he said. Palm Beach County prosecutors say traffic court defendants regularly present fake licenses in court. But the court has no policy on how to deal with them. A spokesman for the Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office traffic unit said that its general policy is to confiscate and destroy the fake licenses. In Miami-Dade, however, one judge and two police officers recently became so concerned about the problem that they are collaborating to educate their colleagues about it. Last month, a traffic defendant in the courtroom of Miami-Dade County Court Judge Sheldon Schwartz was found to have an invalid international driver’s license. El Portal police officer David Adlet and North Miami Beach police officer Craig Catlin, who said they regularly come across the bogus licenses, explained the problem to Judge Schwartz. In a letter to Samuel Slom, administrative judge of the Miami-Dade County Court’s Criminal Division, Schwartz wrote that “the purported license was in fact purchased over the Internet and is not valid to operate a motor vehicle.” Since then, the judge and the two officers have prepared an information packet on the bogus licenses as well as the counterfeit auto insurance cards. The packet was sent to Miami-Dade county judges, local police departments, and the prosecutor’s and public defender’s offices. “I’ve just started investigating, but it appears to be very widespread,” said Judge Schwartz, who called for a federal investigation. “It’s not just Hispanics. I’ve seen it run the gamut.” For all their personal concern about the issue, officers Adlet and Catlin say their departments have made no effort to investigate the sources of these bogus documents. NOT OUR JURISDICTION What will it take to spur state regulators and law enforcement agencies to take action? “Someone in the state attorney’s office has to take the initiative,” said lawyer Brian Tannebaum. “They have to go in the back door and conduct stings.” But that isn’t likely to happen any time soon. Maj. Myers said the state Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco is working on the issue with Interpol and other agencies, but that his agency is hampered by jurisdictional issues. The problem, he said, is that the international licenses often are produced outside of Florida or outside the United States. And while Florida Statute 877.18, the phony ID law, says that the attorney general or the state attorney for any county may apply for a court injunction against “any sale or offer for sale” of the bogus ID, local prosecutors have not taken action so far. In Miami-Dade, the office of State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle did not return calls for comment. In Broward, the office of State Attorney Michael Satz is not investigating because it hasn’t received any complaints about the issue either from law enforcement agencies or consumers, said spokeswoman Joanne Headrick. The office of Palm Beach State Attorney Barry Krischer has no investigation under way, said spokesman Mike Edmondson. “It’s a jurisdictional issue,” he said. “It’s something for [the Florida Department of Law Enforcement] or the FBI.” According to Judy Orihuela, a spokeswoman in the FBI’s Miami office, the bureau currently is not investigating the issue of phony international driver’s licenses.

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