That’s right. Even if your birth certificate says your first name has two words, or your last name has two words, or has an apostrophe, you can’t have your legal name on your New Jersey driver’s license.
Stephen Dello Russo found out the hard way. When his license was up for renewal, he went to the Motor Vehicle Commission in Hazlet with the proper identification: a current license, an original birth certificate with a raised seal, a Social Security card and a utility bill.
He was presented with a new license, but the name said “Stephen D. Russo.” When he showed the clerk the error, Dello Russo was told the system couldn’t handle two words for a last name.
“I explained I had a fraudulent license in my possession,” he said.
The clerk suggested he legally change his last name.
Stumped, and not wanting to carry an erroneous license, Dello Russo looked into a legal name change. When he learned it could cost $1,000, he got angry.
“Why should I have to appease the DMV computer system? I couldn’t believe I was the only one who had the problem,” Dello Russo said. “There are people who throw their arms up in the air and just keep the license with the name wrong.”
But not Dello Russo, so he contacted Bamboozled.
How the system works
Despite Dello Russo’s experience, there have been major improvements at MVC. The agency is more consumer-friendly and more efficient. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, changes were made so fake New Jersey driver’s licenses are much harder to get.
“We went from a driver’s license that was the biggest joke in the nation — people were manufacturing them in college dorm rooms — to one of the most secure, if not the most secure, in the nation,” said Sandy Grossman, an MVC spokesperson.
The agency uses a 6-point identification system, which requires several levels of identifying documents.
But the agency’s computer system is inflexible. Grossman says there are nine spaces available for a first name, one for a middle name and 17 for a last name, but it won’t allow for a space among the characters.
“We cannot, the way the system is currently, put in a blank space,” Grossman said. “This is a problem — there is no getting away from the fact or excusing it. We’re working on an antiquated system.”
She says there’s a new system under production that would address problems like these, but there’s no launch date.
The MVC is supposed to honor what’s on the official documents. If a first name is two words, it could be entered as “Maryann,” with no space. Otherwise, it would be “Mary A.” Grossman said.
But cut a last name in half?
“I personally would have put that name together without the space,” Grossman said.
What’s a two-named motorist to do?
If Dello Russo wanted to cash a check and tried to use his license for identification, a bank might not accept “Russo” as a sufficient last name. And in this age of anti-terrorism efforts, how can a government agency be unable to address the misidentification of legal names? What if Dello Russo wanted to get a passport?
The U.S. State Department said you’d have to show a birth certificate with a raised seal for a first-issue passport, so your name would appear as it’s legally listed on that document, rather than what it says on your license.
But if additional identification, such as your driver’s license, is inconsistent with your birth certificate, you may need to provide additional proof of identity, said Tyrone Shelton, director of the National Passport Center Office of Passport Services.
After Bamboozled’s inquiry, Shelton said the State Department would be meeting with the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators — a nonprofit organization that promotes uniformity among state motor vehicles agencies — to discuss “the concern over name placement in New Jersey driver’s licenses.”
That’s a start, but it may be many years before any changes are made to the MVC system.
What to do
If you’re concerned about your own identification, you can have a note added in the back of your passport saying you’re “also known as” a different name.
When you renew your license, request that your legal two-word name be joined together as one word. If the clerk balks, ask for a supervisor. If your last name has an apostrophe, you’re out of luck.
Dello Russo went through the State Advocate’s office, and he was told to return to the MVC. His license would be reissued as Dellorusso, with no space.
When he went to the MVC, he received an apology and a new license.
“I asked, ‘Is this going to happen again in four years?’ and she looked at me and said, ‘I can’t say that,'” Dello Russo said.