GBI investigating how Puerto Rican driver's license applicants are treated

The Department of Drivers Services Commissioner, Spencer Moore, has asked the GBI to investigate how Puerto Rican driver’s license applicants are treated.

Our I-Team was told this late last night as they prepared to report a story about one American citizen, born in Puerto Rico, who was arrested when he applied for his driver’s license.

A federal lawsuit also claims the driver services department forces applicants to pass a quiz, testing their knowledge - not of driving, but of Puerto Rico. 

FOX 5 I-Team traveled to Hinesville Georgia for an exclusive interview with the man at the center of it all.

Puerto Rico is a US Territory; that means people born in Puerto Rico are also U.S. citizens. So, when Kenneth Caban-Gonzalez moved to Georgia to support his growing family, all he needed to get a job and start the journey was a Georgia driver’s license. That search has led to an internal investigation ordered by Governor Brian Kemp and a federal lawsuit.

In September 2017, back-to-back Hurricanes devastated Puerto Rico. In Hinesville, a brand-new Georgia resident, Kenneth Caban-Gonzalez, followed the destruction through family texts and emails. Just a month earlier, he had left Puerto Rico to chase the American dream.

“To be able to help my family in Puerto Rico too, I have two kids in PR and I'd like to help them too and provide for them,” said Caban-Gonzalez.

But Caban-Gonzalez had a problem. He didn’t have a Georgia driver's license. He had to rely on his father to take him to work. 

Caban-Gonzalez’s problems started when he came to the Hinesville Georgia Department of Driver Services to get a Georgia driver’s license. He says he did everything the law required. He brought a birth certificate and driver's license from Puerto Rico. Since, he is an American citizen, he also brought his social security card.

"Yes, the documents, everything I gave them, were original," said Caban-Gonzalez.

According to a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of Caban-Gonzalez, the Driver Services investigator took all his documents and said they would get back to him. Three days later, Caban-Gonzalez got a text to come to Savannah for an interview.

Caban-Gonzalez was told to return here the Driver Services Department in Savannah. He was hoping to get that valid Georgia driver’s license. Instead, he was arrested.

"We asked them, hey what's going on here, why are they arresting us, what's the reason?” Caban-Gonzalez asked.

In the past, there have been problems with undocumented immigrants pretending to be Puerto Rican in order to get a license.  Caban-Gonzalez was arrested, jailed, charged with forgery and making false statements. However, the case lingered for a year and a half. Eighteen months after his arrest, the Liberty County district attorney dismissed the warrant because "The case report in this matter has not been received."

Kenneth had no idea. He learned his criminal case was dismissed from us.

"I feel good because it was a heavy charge on me and my family. It was hard for everyone," said Caban-Gonzalez.

While the warrants were dismissed, two civil rights groups filed a federal class action lawsuit against DDS and the investigator who arrested Gonzalez claiming Georgia’s policy violates his and other Puerto Ricans civil rights.

The lawsuit says Georgia Driver Services wrongfully seizes Puerto Ricans identity documents and takes too long to award licenses. It also says the department requires Puerto Rican applicants to answer questions about Puerto Rico to prove they are from the U.S. territory.

Gonzalez was arrested and did not have to answer questions about his homeland, but he had friends who took the test. We wanted to know how he would do. Many questions he got right. Some geography and political questions - he had no idea.

One question asked where is the beach in Caguas? Caban-Gonzalez looked at us as if he had seen a ghost. He shook his head.

Caguas does not have a beach. It is a trick question.

"For us Puerto Ricans it’s not okay, its asking questions that not everyone's going to know and even so they ask questions about who's this person but if we've never heard that name, we won't know the person and just for that we won't pass the test." But that doesn't mean we're not from Puerto Rico," said Caban-Gonzalez.

Caban-Gonzalez still does not have a Georgia driver's license. But, strangely, the state gave him a state ID card; an ID card requires the same documentation as a driver’s license.

DDS tells us there is an "internal investigation" of the case and because of that and the lawsuit, they are unable to comment.

“I have never heard of anything like this, but I think they are correct to be suspicious of Puerto Rico ID in general,” says D.A. King.

King is president of a nonprofit group dedicated to ending illegal immigration in America. King says there have been many stolen and fake documents coming out of Puerto Rico. However, he does not understand how the state can refuse to give Caban-Gonzalez a driver's license, but turn around and give him an ID card.

“It's a head-scratcher,” said King.

In addition, King particularly does not like the thought of driver services asking test questions only for people claiming to be from Puerto Rico

“If in fact the DDS in Georgia asked this young man odd questions that I did not get asked when I originally obtained mine, then I'm extremely upset and I think most Georgians will be,” said King.

"I lost everything; I came here to end up losing everything. To say it one way, it was all in vain," said Caban-Gonzalez

A GBI spokesperson says they are investigating DDS processes and also looking to see if any laws were broken.

A DDS spokesperson told us Commissioner Moore expects all customers to be treated with dignity and respect.

The commissioner did not approve the test or interview guide given to Puerto Rican license applicants, we were told.

Emails we've read indicate the test questions came from the Diplomatic Security Services, a law enforcement arm of the State Department.