Maryland transportation officials yesterday announced a temporary freeze on the issuance of Motor Vehicle Administration identification cards while they devise a system to reduce the risk of fraud.
The decision came after an investigation of an 18-year-old Baltimore man who, police allege, obtained a duplicate driver's license in the name of a 37-year-old man whom he is charged with abducting and killing.
About 78,000 people, including many elderly and handicapped who are unable to drive, apply for the photo ID cards each year as an alternate means of identification to a driver's license.
The freeze, which goes into effect today, could last up to three months while authorities create a centralized system that will allow them to double-check an applicant's records and then mail the ID card to the person's address.
"We recognize that it [the 90-day freeze] will cause some hardship to some individuals," said Maryland Transportation Secretary O. James Lighthizer.
"In the past, the MVA correctly put emphasis on efficiency, speed and customer service. It's clear a greater emphasis has to be put on security."
The freeze was one of a half-dozen initiatives Mr. Lighthizer announced yesterday to prevent fraud and tighten security at MVA offices.
The initiatives range from stationing police officers at MVA branches to creating a "Driver License Hot Line," a toll-free number people can call to report lost or missing licenses or ID cards.
The MVA also plans to create a computer link to state police so the licenses of missing persons or murder victims can be flagged.
In addition, the MVA wants by the mid-1990s to create a computer system that would electronically store photographs, signatures and even fingerprints. Mr. Lighthizer proposed spending $200,000 in fiscal 1993 for a feasibility study for such a system.
Even with those changes, however, it is not clear whether the MVA would have caught on to the teen-ager who, authorities say, bribed a clerk at the MVA's Mondawmin office to get a duplicate license in the name of the slain Vitalis V. Pilius.
Police are investigating that transaction.
The MVA employee, a woman who police claim was a friend of 18-year-old Dontay Carter, now charged in the Pilius death, has been suspended from her job but is reported to be cooperating in the investigation.
So far, police have not produced evidence of widespread fraud at the MVA. A study of MVA's security vulnerability is scheduled to be released Monday.
"You can't stop absolutely 100 percent of this type of fraud," Mr. Lighthizer said. "The important thing is to minimize the opportunity for things like that to happen in the future."
Last Friday, MVA employees reported that 14 people attempted obtain fraudulent driver's license duplicates or ID cards.
MVA Administrator W. Marshall Rickert said that was a "typical" number.
None were arrested because clerks are not empowered to arrest suspects, who typically flee the scene said.
Even if a suspect is caught, few such incidents lead to prosecution. In the past two years the MVA has taken "10 or 11 cases" to court and revoked licenses for another 700 people involved in fraudulent attempts, Mr. Rickert said.
Sharon Maneki, president of the Maryland chapter of the National Federation of the Blind, said the freeze on IDs could be a significant problem for disabled people who need them to cash checks or make credit purchases.
"There should be a better way than stopping it altogether," she said.
The creation of a new MVA data bank, particularly one that would catalog fingerprints, raised privacy concerns with the American Civil Liberties Union.
"Just because somebody abused the system doesn't mean it needs to be changed," said Stuart Comstock-Gay, executive director of the Maryland ACLU. "Historically, when you create a new data base, somebody inevitably will want to put it to some other use."
Mr. Lighthizer said he was unconcerned about the civil rights issue. Officials said they chose not to freeze driver's license renewals because that would have caused considerably more hardship.