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February 18, 2014
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Tim Dees Police Tech & Gear
with Tim Dees

What cops need to know about Real ID

The ID cards themselves will have to contain, at a minimum, the bearer’s full name, signature, date of birth, gender, principal address, a front-facing photo, and a unique number

For almost the last ten years a program called Real ID has been slowly creeping along with the promise of improving the security and reliability of state-issued driver’s licenses and ID cards. How effective it is or will be, and how it affects you, is mostly yet unknown. 

Passed in 2005 during the George W. Bush administration, the Real ID Act was inspired in part by the terrorist attacks of 9/11, where most of the terrorists had been able to obtain state-issued driver’s licenses and ID cards with fraudulent documents. 

The act has two major components: a requirement that states issuing driver’s licenses and ID cards (for the rest of this article, I’m going to use “ID card” to cover both types of documents) implement more rigorous standards for acceptance of documents supporting the identification cards, and measures to make the cards themselves more difficult to counterfeit or alter. 

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Real ID Requirements
The upgraded documentation requirements mean that getting or renewing an ID card is going to be a little more complicated than it used to be. Full compliance with Real ID requirements means that applicants will have to have, at minimum:

•    Photographic identification
•    Documentation of applicant’s birth date
•    Documentation of applicant’s citizenship or immigration status or a Social Security card
•    Documentation of name and primary address

Given that most of us got our first driver’s license with nothing more than a birth certificate, you might want to start looking around for where those other credentials might be found. 

The ID cards themselves will have to contain, at a minimum, the bearer’s full name, signature, date of birth, gender, principal address, a front-facing photo, and a unique number. 

Missing somewhat conspicuously from this list is a magstripe, barcode, RFID chip, or other machine-readable data feature that a cop-held scanner could use to query the license databank without keying it in manually. It would have been nice if everyone could have settled on the same format, so law enforcement could standardize on one type of reader, but that would be too much to ask. 

There is another requirement for states to be fully Real ID-compliant. Each state is required to link their database of ID cards with every other state’s database so as to “provide electronic access by a state to information contained in the motor vehicle databases of all other states.” 

This is arguably the most onerous requirement of the Real ID Act. If you’ve ever read an ID card record printout from any state outside your own, you’ve noticed that there is very little similarity between them. Most include the information contained on the ID card face itself, but the record may or may not contain names previously used by the bearer (most commonly women’s unmarried and previous-marriage surnames), whether the bearer is an organ donor, has a concealed weapon permit, has any vehicles registered to them, how many violation points there are on their driving record, previous violations, etc. No two states format this information in exactly the same way. 

This means that nearly every state has to make at least minor changes to its database structure to be compliant with Real ID, and it’s an unfunded mandate. The federal government did not make available to the states any money to help them bring their ID cards or data into compliance. 

Of course, maverick states can just tell the feds to pound sand and ignore the requirements of Real ID, but they will be making life difficult for their constituents if they do. Effective in 2014, a Real ID-compliant ID card is necessary for admission to certain federally-controlled facilities, including federal buildings and nuclear power plants. Visiting a nuke plant might not be on your bucket list, but chances are that going to someplace most easily reached by airplane is. By 2016, a Real ID-compliant ID card will be needed to board a commercial aircraft. 

At this writing, most states and U.S. territories are at least partially in compliance with Real ID requirements. Those that aren’t are a mix of red and blue states: Alaska, American Samoa, Arizona, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Marianas Islands, Oklahoma, and Washington. “Enhanced” ID cards from New York and Washington are compliant. These include passport information and a RFID chip, and can be used to cross the U.S.-Canadian border without a passport. 

Alarmists may claim that Real ID is a step toward a national ID card, but people who know better believe it falls far short of that. If anything, it probably falls short of being a national ID in part because of the lack of a consistent machine-readable data block that would have made cops’ lives easier. 

About the author

Tim Dees is a writer, editor, trainer, and former law enforcement officer. After 15 years as a police officer with the Reno Police Department and elsewhere in Northern Nevada, Tim taught criminal justice as a full-time professor and instructor at colleges in Wisconsin, West Virginia, Georgia, and Oregon.

He was also a regional training coordinator for the Oregon Dept. of Public Safety Standards & Training, providing in-service training to 65 criminal justice agencies in central and eastern Oregon.

Tim has written more than 300 articles for nearly every national law enforcement publication in the United States, and is the author of The Truth About Cops, published by Hyperink Press. In 2005, Tim became the first editor-in-chief for Officer.com, moving to the same position for LawOfficer.com at the beginning of 2008. He now writes on applications of technology in law enforcement from his home in SE Washington state.

Tim holds a bachelor’s degree in biological science from San José State University, a master’s degree in criminal justice from The University of Alabama, and the Certified Protection Professional credential from ASIS International. He serves on the executive board of the Public Safety Writers Association.

Dees can be reached at tim.dees@policeone.com.

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