2 Investigates: Old traffic tickets may come back to bite California drivers

Old out-of-state traffic tickets, sometimes long forgotten by the people who got them, are coming back to haunt more California drivers.  2 Investigates has confirmed a shift in federal regulations is prompting DMV's to check a nationwide database for unresolved problems before issuing or renewing driver's licenses.

A 30 year-old Mistake

Erich Hayner, 56, of Oakland, says he was caught off guard by a letter from the California DMV that arrived in the mail in 2014.  The letter informed him his California driver's license could be canceled in 30 days because his driving privileges in Illinois has been suspended or revoked.

Hayner was especially confused because the unresolved violation happened in 1984, in Chicago, 30 years ago.

"I was stunned... I couldn't even believe it," said Hayner. "I took this little u-turn and (the police officer) stopped me and I was shocked.  I didn't even know it was illegal."

At the time, Hayner says he didn't have the money to pay the $40 ticket, so he stopped driving until moving to Oakland in the early 90's.  While the violation in Illinois was unresolved, Hayner says he had no problem getting a California license until the DMV contacted him last year.

"All they said was, ‘You have to go to Illinois and figure that out,’" said Hayner.

But sorting out his driving record in Illinois wasn't so simple. Hayner says an operator with the State of Illinois told him a record of his old ticket existed only in a national database. 

"They said, ‘We have no record of that ticket.’  There's no record whatsoever.  They're just gone. It's too long ago for this to happen," said Hayner.

By the time he could pay the fine and a fee of about $100 Hayner says his California driver's license was briefly suspended.

"My insurance company dropped me from the good driver program. And that's when I really got steamed because I've only gotten three tickets in 35 years," said Hayner.  "This isn't a matter of paying a fine... It's like wrecking somebody's credit."

National Driver Register

The California DMV told 2 Investigates a change in federal regulations is why Hayner's 30 year-old violation was suddenly flagged in 2014.

Since October 2007, the DMV says it's been required to run names through the National Driver Register (NDR) and Problem Driver Pointer System (PDPS) for anyone who applies for a driver's license, a renewal, or any other change to their record.  Prior to that time, the DMV says it would only check the names of commercial drivers in the national database.

Any driver with an outstanding violation in another state must now clear their record before getting a license in California.

"Really, we want to know, did you have a lot of tickets in another state? Did you have a DUI in another state? We want to make sure our roads are safe," said California DMV spokesperson Jessica Gonzalez.

With more than 33 million licensed drivers in California, the DMV's unit which handles issues with the NDR/PDPS has been extremely busy.

"The manager over there told me, each week, they receive about a thousand calls," said Gonzalez.

2 Investigates shared Erich Hayner's case with Sacramento attorney, Larry Pilgrim, who frequently handles cases involving the DMV.  While Pilgrim has represented clients trying to clear old traffic tickets, he called Hayner's situation bizarre.

"(The DMV) is not wrong in suspending you or honoring the other state's actions. They're not wrong in doing that. What doesn't feel good or doesn't seem right is just clearing up, pulling up stuff from 10, 15, 20 years ago," said Pilgrim.

How to Check Your Record

All drivers can check their status on the National Driver Register, free of charge, but they have to mail a notarized letter requesting an "NDR check," according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

MORE INFO: National Driver Register FAQ's

If your name appears in the NDR with an outstanding violation, drivers should make sure the California DMV receives a "letter of clearance" from the state in which the violation occurred.

Hayner only wishes he paid his $40 ticket when he first got in 1984.

"I really believe I should have paid that ticket," said Hayner.  "I didn't know that at the age of 24, I'd be doing something that would mess me up when I was 56."