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Trouble Accessing Florida DMVs During COVID-19 Brings Unintended Consequences

Closures and rollbacks on hours of operation have made it tougher for Floridians to renew or get their driver's licenses or state identifications.
Closures and rollbacks on hours of operation have made it tougher for Floridians to renew or get their driver's licenses or state identifications.

As state and local officials debate reopening Florida schools to children, another core government service remains operational at a significantly reduced capacity: Driver License and Motor Vehicle Service Centers, or DMVs for short.

State DMV offices originally closed shop in mid-March and reopened their doors in June, albeit by appointment only. 

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“But good luck getting an appointment,” said Evan Hoffman, a Miami-based attorney who handles traffic and driving cases.

The rollback on access to DMV offices has brought about some unintended consequences for people who need to renew licenses, get new state identifications, and on voter registration efforts. In many cases, the rollbacks have impacted people trying to resolve their outstanding criminal cases.

Some of Hoffman’s clients are facing charges of driving with a suspended license, or driving without a valid license. In order to clear those legal hurdles and get on with life, those clients have to go to the DMV in person, and can’t do the necessary tasks online.

“In Broward there’s something called the initiative program where they’ll give you 90 days to get your license and the case will resolve favorably. In Miami, usually it’s a non-accident citation and usually you can produce a valid license and they’ll drop the charges,” said Hoffman. "I have clients that are in the programs and they are freaking out that they can't get appointements."

One of Hoffman’s clients is a 90-year-old who was given a citation for driving after his license expired during the pandemic, he said. The man was unable to get an appointment.

Another one of Hoffman's clients was arrested in Key West for driving without a valid license, but he was unable to find an appointment to reinstate his license in Miami-Dade County, where he lives.

“He actually went to Palm Beach County to take care of it,” said Hoffman.

“It’s kind of like a catch-22. You have people that need to do certain things to fulfill certain legal requirements, but they can’t get access to the offices,” said Brett Schwartz, a Miami-based attorney. “You have to wonder if having [a] fully operational DMV office should be considered an essential service.”

Next Monday, noted Schwartz, his daughter plans to travel several counties away in order to get a driver’s license for the first time, which cannot be done online. 

In the wake of people traveling across the state in order to access DMV offices, some counties have started to restrict in-person service to people who live inside that county.

DMV services in 64 of Florida’s 67 counties are handled by county tax collector offices, and they set their own rules, said Aaron Keller, the director of communications for the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

The state handles DMV services in Miami-Dade, Broward and Volusia counties, and those offices are open to residents of any county.

However, in early July the state had to “temporarily reduce the number of appointments available” in those counties due to the sharp uptick in COVID-19 cases, said Keller. Some of those appointment slots are now starting to be added.

A series of orders issued by Gov. Ron DeSantis extended the expiration dates on licenses and identifications that expired between March and April. But those extensions have not been continued.

The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles told WLRN that more than 2 million transactions have taken place online since March.

A separate consequence of reduced access to DMV offices and other government agencies is the slashing of a major avenue for registering voters for upcoming elections.

Between March and June of 2019, a total of 145,980 people registered to vote in DMV offices, according to data kept by the Florida Department of State.

In 2020, that statewide number dropped down to 94,455. Only 4,869 people registered to vote at a DMV in all of April, down from 2019’s average of around 35,000 registrations per month.

Some third-party groups, like the Washington-based Center for Voter Information and the Voter Participation Center, have stepped into the void. Combined, the groups have sent more than 1.5 million voter registration forms across the state. 

“It’s really really incumbent upon groups like ours to help people register, because the state doesn’t send out voter registration applications to unregistered people,” said Page Gardner, the chair of the board for both the Voter Participation Center and the Center for Voter Information. “In-person [registration at elections offices] has shut down, DMVs are shut down, public libraries where people go, or other agencies — all of that has been shut down.”

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Daniel Rivero is a reporter and producer for WLRN, covering Latino and criminal justice issues. Before joining the team, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion.