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When Home is a Post Office Box

The home address listed on a Texas driver's license used to be one of the best tools police had to track people down, serve warrants or notify next-of-kin when someone died. But no more in this job-hopping, mobile culture.

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Fibbing about weight and height is a longstanding tradition when it comes to Texas driver's license, but lately another bit of fiction has been creeping into that legal document: a driver's home address.

In years past, a driver's license issued by the state Department of Public Safety was one of the most best tools police had to track down criminal suspects and witnesses, serve warrants or look quickly for next-of-kin when someone was killed.

"That's commonly been one of the primary criteria," said Melissa Hamilton, a visiting criminal law scholar at the University of Houston Law Center and a former police officer. The home address listed on a license, she said, was one of the "very consistent" pieces of identifying information over time.

But no more. Blame it on a more mobile, job-hopping culture, both nationwide and in Texas.

That whole requirement about updating your driver's license address within 30 days of moving? The public either doesn't bother to do it, or just doesn't know about the law, Austin Police Commander Mark Spangler says.

"It normally comes as a complete surprise to them when the officer stops them," said Spangler, who oversees APD's robbery and homicide division.

On top of that, many Texans have started using private mailboxes, like those rented at the more than 300 UPS Store locations across the state, as their home address.

A random check by The Texas Tribune, using the subscription service PublicData, found dozens of Texas driver's licenses using UPS Store locations as their home address.  

The address of just one UPS Store in southwest Austin, for instance, was listed by 45 Texas drivers as their home address (including, oddly, one member of the American Phoenix Foundation, the nonprofit group that has been following lawmakers and secretly videotaping them)

While DPS spokesman Tom Vinger insisted that data brokers like PublicData may not have the most accurate information, it did have this reporter's updated address for her own driver's license (and that update was done just a few months ago).  

DPS rules bar individuals from using post office box numbers or business addresses as home address on their licenses. But do private mailboxes, which incorporate the business address of the private mailbox center, violate the rule?

Hard to say. DPS's Vinger shied away from the question, referring the Tribune to the Texas statute. 

"The potential legal violation relates to Texas Transportation Code 521.454, False Application. Please see statute," Vinger wrote to the Tribune. 

Pressed further, Vinger wrote: "As you will see in the rule below, generally, a business address is not acceptable for that purpose." 

If it comes to the agency's attention, he said, that "inaccurate information" has been provided, the department "can" take action. But it's not clear if it does, or how many driver's licenses have private mail drops listed as home residences. 

As for the UPS Store, which is a leader in the private mailbox rental industry, a spokesman says putting a UPS Store address on your driver's license could be misrepresenting yourself to a state department of motor vehicles, or in this case DPS, if that agency specifies you use a home address and not a mailing address.

To get a mailbox through a local UPS Store, a customer must present two forms of identification, at least one including a home address.

"If they go in and change the address on their driver's license after the fact, they are then misrepresenting themselves because these types of forms typically do require a home address instead of a mailing address," said Nicole Cox, spokeswoman for the UPS Store, a wholly owned subsidiary of UPS. "The store's address is clearly a mailing address and not a home address."

As for law enforcement, APD's Spangler said most law enforcement officers began ditching the sole use of driver's license information as a way to find people years ago because the information contained is usually not up to date. 

"The driver's license database has some limitations that are known," he said. Instead, most agencies turn to law enforcement databases that draw from many sources like driver's licenses, arrest and conviction data. A better tracking tool, Spangler said, is utility bill information, which used to be public in Texas but is now accessible only by law enforcement. 

Ironically, the state's appraisal districts appear to be bigger enforcers of DPS anti-business address rule. To get that homestead exemption, a homeowner's property address must be on the Texas driver license, per a 2009 state law change, confirmed Travis County Chief Appraiser Marya Crigler.

"If they want to make an application, a copy of their driver's license must match their home address," she said. 

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