Colorado law would let you self-identify by race on your driver’s license— but not how you might think

Scott Davidson

Scene: You’re barreling down I-25 in the left lane when flashing lights splash across your rearview mirror. Busted again. You hand the cop your license, and the officer tells you to sit tight. In the mirror you can see him in the patrol car running your information. He breaks out in a big laugh and walks back up to your window.

“Nice one. I liked that,” he says. “This is a just a warning. Slow it down, OK?”

So, what happened? You’ve included your favorite joke in the stored information data on your driver’s license magnetic strip, and when the cop swiped your license it appeared on his screen.

Wait, what? There’s information stored on the magnetic strip of your driver’s license? And you can put it there? Well, maybe we aren’t there yet, but if some lawmakers get their way this session they’ll allow drivers to include certain info on the strip when an officer runs your ID during a stop. What exactly? Well, as the bill is written it’s actually not broad enough to include jokes, aphorisms, or your particular feelings about police — or anything like it. The new law would only let you include how you self-identify by race. (But hey, someone could always amend the bill, right?)

Jokes aside, this bipartisan bill, HB 1021, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Joe Salazar and Republican Sen. Ellen Roberts, came out of a committee dedicated to determining whether officers are profiling the citizens of Colorado. And if the bill passes, Colorado could have more data on the issue.

During meetings of the committee last year, community groups and researchers testified about the difficulties of studying racial profiling. “There is little data available, and where information exists, it is incomplete,” the committee stated in a report. Members of law enforcement told the panel they generally believe reliable data could improve community relations, “but they also expressed concern that certain methods of data collection, such as expressly requesting a contact’s race and ethnicity, could cause harm and distrust between law enforcement and the community.”

Here’s more from the committee’s report:

Various law enforcement agencies raised concerns regarding officers attempting to collect data relating to the race and ethnicity of those contacted. Some law enforcement representatives believed that collecting such information would be time consuming and that getting information could be difficult, especially in cases where the contacted individual may not trust the law enforcement officer. Further, some representatives of law enforcement agencies were concerned that requesting such information may strain relations between law enforcement and the community. Law enforcement also expressed concern about attempting to identify the race and ethnicity of an individual without the individual self-identifying.

When talking to the panel, representatives from the Colorado State Patrol said they do actually collect data on race and ethnicity during interactions. But, they said, it can be hard to know if they’re accurate on the race question if the way a person self-identifies doesn’t appear on a license or ID card.

One way to get that information would be to make it voluntary.

So as part of its legislative recommendations, the committee suggested lawmakers should ask the DMV to change the application process for a driver’s license and other state ID cards so Coloradans could, if they want, store how they self-identify by race on the magnetic strip.

Photo credit: Scott Davidson, Creative Commons, Flickr