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Social Insecurity

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Published October 20, 2004 at 5:38 p.m.

Like most Vermont teenagers, Jake Patry-Sempf of Fairfax didn't wait long after his 15th birthday in May to apply for his learner's permit. And like most eager, young drivers-to-be, Patry-Sempf showed up at the Department of Motor Vehicles fully prepared. Or so he thought. He gave the DMV examiner two forms of legal identification, paid his fee, and easily passed his vision and written exams.

But the examiner refused to accept Patry-Sempf's money or issue him a learner's permit. Why? Because in the box on the form where it asks for the applicant's Social Security number, Patry-Sempf wrote, "none." Patry-Sempf doesn't have a Social Security number. His parents never got him one. Apparently, the DMV considers that grounds for denying him a learner's permit.

Patry-Sempf's parents, Thomas Patry and Barbara Sempf, say the DMV's policy makes no sense, since their son can't disclose a number he was never issued. More importantly, they contend that Vermont law doesn't require it -- and they're willing to go to court to prove they're right.

On October 8, Patry and Sempf filed suit against the governor, the secretary of transportation, the commissioner of motor vehicles and the DMV examiner. Their lawsuit, filed in Franklin County Superior Court in St. Albans, charges the defendants with "abuse of executive discretion" for denying their son his due-process rights. "It's a trust account number. It's confidential and I don't have to give that out," Sempf contends. "And it would be foolish to if I didn't want everybody in the world to know it, [since] it goes into a computer."

Sempf says she never imagined she'd have to sue the state just to teach her son to drive. Initially, the DMV examiner told her to "take it up with Montpelier." So she did. "When I called, the people at DMV were rude," Sempf claims. "I had someone screaming at me that, why didn't I get my child a Social Security number when he was born? Didn't I know it's against the law not to?"

"No, it's not required," notes Walter Miranowicz in the Burlington office of the Social Security Administration. In fact, the federal government doesn't even consider a Social Security number a legal form of identification. Until 1972, the cards read "Not for identification." But Miranowicz also admits, "It's pretty hard for a person to go through life without one."

Sempf and Patry are hardly the only Vermonters who are troubled by the use of Social Security numbers on everything from medical records to credit-card applications to college ID cards. Like a growing number of Americans who are concerned about identity theft -- now the nation's fastest growing crime, according to the FBI -- Patry and Sempf say there's no reason their son should be required to have to have a Social Security number just to get a learner's permit. "That number isn't going to make him drive one bit safer or smarter or understand the rules any better," says Sempf. "It's just a number."

Moreover, it's a number that can do a lot of damage if it falls into the wrong hands. According to the Federal Trade Commission, American consumers lose about $5 billion each year to identity theft; businesses, about $45 million. The average victim loses between $500 and $1200, and typically spends from 30 to 60 hours trying to rectify the problem.

In June, the Vermont Attorney General's office reported that identity theft is on the rise, with 159 new complaints filed by Vermonters with the FTC in 2003 alone. Ironically, in June the governor signed a new identity-theft prevention law prohibiting the posting of Social Security numbers in public places. It requires the Administration find new ways to restrict the use of Social Security numbers by 2005.

DMV Commissioner Bonnie Rutledge said she wasn't aware of the lawsuit, but pointed out that both state and federal law requires the DMV to gather Social Security numbers on applications for learner's permits, driver's licenses and non-driver identification cards. Rutledge emphasized that the DMV doesn't share those numbers with other governmental agencies or with private companies.

But Sempf refutes Rutledge's claim that Vermont has any such requirement. Though neither Sempf nor her husband is an attorney, "We do enjoy reading statutes and court cases," she says, "because you can't believe what other people tell you." Sempf says they've looked for --and couldn't find --a Social Security number requirement in Vermont statute.

They did find an administrative rule to that effect, however, written by a DMV commissioner. But Sempf and Patry argue that the policy is unenforceable because the rule wasn't passed by the Legislature, signed by the governor, or recorded with the Secretary of State.

Whether or not the rule is enforceable will probably be decided by a judge. But Tom McCormick, an assistant Attorney General in the DMV office, confirms that Vermont has no specific statute requiring a learner's permit applicant to disclose, or even have, a Social Security number. McCormick does say, however, that Vermont must comply with the federal law requiring all states to collect those numbers. Incidentally, the federal law was enacted as a way to improve the effectiveness of child-support enforcement.

Sempf and Patry aren't the first Vermonters to challenge the legality of this DMV practice. In 1969, John Freidin was denied a driver's license for the same reason. He, too, sued the state. "My case ended in a very bizarre fashion," recalls Freidin, a former state representative from New Haven who now serves on the board of the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont. During his trial, a representative from the DMV testified that Freidin had already provided his Social Security number on the title application for his car, making the entire case moot.

When will young Patry-Sempf gets his turn behind the wheel? His folks says it's anyone's guess. "We're still waiting and hoping [the DMV] will get reasonable," his mother says. "They can't seem to get passed whatever it is they can't get passed."