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I was pulled over again today in Mexico, for an illegal left turn. The officer wanted to hold my driver's license until I paid the fine--as is common practice in Mexico for foreigners.

However, I've been told by friends that it is illegal for local officials to hold a foreign driver's license, as it is an "International document" (whatever that really means).

I said this to the officer, and he showed me some official-looking "rule book" stating that the officer could demand a license or other form of guarantee for a traffic fine. Of course his document did not say whether it applied to foreigners--and I don't know if such a rule would have jurisdiction anyway.

I asked to photograph his rule book, and he told me that was not allowed because it was an official document (ha! whatever).

(Good news is he didn't fine me this time anyway).

So the question: As traveler in foreign countries, can a local authority hold my U.S. driver's license when issuing a traffic violation, or is there any sort of international law that prohibits this?

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If the answer varies by country, I'll edit the question to be specifically about Mexico, but I suspect any relevant (International?) law would have farther reaching jurisdiction than simply Mexico. –  Flimzy Sep 6 '13 at 17:19
    
But without driver's license you are not allowed to drive, so I would you continue your journey after a small violation? –  Bernhard Sep 6 '13 at 18:34
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There is no international rule that forbids that. In fact, in many countries, when somebody is arrested, he might be asked to surrender his passport to get bail. I have no idea if it is legal in Mexico. –  R-traveler Sep 6 '13 at 19:01
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Here is an official guide for British drivers driving abroad gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/… . It says: "If you break French driving laws you can also have your UK driving licence confiscated by French Police." As I understand, most European countries have similar rules. –  R-traveler Sep 6 '13 at 19:17
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@R-traveler same in the Netherlands. Any offense there that'd have a local have his license confiscated will trigger the same for a foreigner (though police might be quicker to get the paperwork handled, locals have to wait weeks for a police judge to decide on the length of the suspension, foreigners often get a judgment the same day). –  jwenting Sep 9 '13 at 13:21
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6 Answers 6

up vote 8 down vote accepted

There are no international rules that forbid that. There are numerous stories on the Internet about people whose driver's licenses were conficsated in EU countries. Here is an official guide for British drivers driving abroad. It says:

If you break French driving laws you can also have your UK driving licence confiscated by French Police.

Similarly, in many countries, if a person is arrested, he or she might be asked to surrender his or her passport to get bail.

Summary: I have no idea if it is legal for police to hold your driver's license in Mexico. But it doesn't violate any international laws.

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When french police confiscate your drivers license, it is not for ransom, it is because you did something that they queustion your ability to drive (severe speeding, drunk driving, etc ).In this case the confiscation applies in the UK as well and you won't get a duplicate until the french authorities dealt with your case. If you can't pay a icket they usually hold your car, until you pay –  andra Sep 7 '13 at 6:50
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@Andra the same would be true in Mexico, unless you claim here that all Mexican cops confiscating papers are doing so to extort money from foreigners rather than to apply the law, which would no doubt be illegal for them to do in Mexico as it is in any country that has law. –  jwenting Sep 9 '13 at 13:23
    
@jwenting I suspect the same to be true in Mexico. I tried to explain that below, but surprisingly got a downvote. So I suspect people think differently. Would be nice to get an elaboration on the specific Mexican case. –  andra Sep 9 '13 at 13:41
    
+1 Good answer and interesting example. A small quibble however: There are a lot of rules in the EU regarding driver's licenses, traffic offenses, etc. with several directives and case law from the ECJ, a whole system to enforce fines in other countries, etc. so what UK drivers should expect in France might not be typical of what tourists should expect outside of Europe. –  Relaxed Sep 11 '13 at 9:06
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Others have already provided correct answers but it might be useful to note that the very way you framed the question is at odds with the way international law works. The relevant law in a such a situation is first and foremost the local law. Beyond some limited things like the right to request that your consulate be informed of your situation when arrested, you do not have any general right to special treatment as a foreigner, let alone immunity from local law.

Even if there were some relevant international law (which there isn't in this case, as far as I know), it is still entirely up to the local legal system to actually respect it or provide a way to have the relevant rights recognized. I am stating the obvious here but there is no “international court” where individuals could appeal national decisions, no global police to enforce international law. There are also very few general rules that could be deemed to apply to any state (customary law and general principles) and most of what matters comes from treaties and therefore only applies to selected states (those that are a party to the treaty). Even from the perspective of international law, it's therefore important to consider which countries we are talking about and you should not expect any general answer. In fact, there is a ton of international law that stems from bilateral agreements and only applies to two specific states.

In any case, treaties are routinely ignored or violated and there is usually nothing you can do about it in practice. Even for egregious abuse (think shooting a police officer from within an embassy, kidnapping foreign nationals, etc.), the main things states can do, short of starting a war, is complain officially (there are traditional ways to complain varying in the degree of severity from sending a letter to breaking off diplomatic relations and expelling the other state's diplomatic staff). And even that would still not give you the right to drive in Mexico as far as the Mexican authorities are concerned!

Also consider this: Foreigners in your country can be arrested and punished in any way that is locally acceptable (including things that most countries object to like the death penalty) without asking their home state for permission. People trying to cross a border (no matter which one) can also be subjected to a lot of arbitrariness, interrogation and detention and still don't have any practical recourse. Also, war crimes, crimes against humanity and even genocide do happen and are still very difficult to prosecute or punish in any way. Why would you expect international law to protect you effectively from a relatively innocuous measure like the confiscation of a driver's license?

Finally, you have to look at it from the perspective of the state you are visiting. It is already doing you something of a favor by letting you drive with your US license. There are in fact treaties about that and a number of states that do recognize it (with or without additional documentation) but there is no a priori reason for your US license to be recognized by each and every state in the world. So here again, no general rule that would apply everywhere.

In this particular case, Mexico has good relations with the US so it's possible to imagine the local authorities would want to avoid displeasing visitors or perhaps that there is some special bilateral agreement between the two countries but what about Cuba, Iran or North Korea? It would clearly be inconceivable for the application of US law in the US to be contingent on these countries' legal systems and vice versa. At the end of the day, what matters is therefore the local law (or whether it is respected at all by the local police, which might matter more than the law itself in some countries) and the way traffic offenses are punished does not depend on anything else.

In light of all this, what you should be asking about is probably not about what happens to US citizens in unspecified foreign countries but what happens to locals and foreigners in Mexico.

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Thank you for your answer. I was asking the question primarily to confirm or, more likely, deny the rumors I had heard that it was somehow illegal. Not because I truly believed it was. Your answer, and the others, serve to confirm what I already believed to be the case. –  Flimzy Sep 11 '13 at 19:42
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Passports and drivers licenses are governmental documents of which you are the holder. Since the Mexican police are the official representatives of the authorities in Mexico your drivers license actually is their property, so legally they have all rights to take your license.

When they confiscate your license they say that you are not fit to continue driving. Whether or not they are allowed to confiscate your drivers license for not paying a penalty depends more on local laws then on international law. If it is common practice in Mexico to take away licenses until fees are paid, then they can do the same with your (foreign) license.

If you find a loophole in the law which allows you to have two licenses, you might run into serious issues, since it can be considered a criminal offense if you continue driving on a second drivers license if your first is confiscated. When your license is confiscated abroad you first need to deal with that before driving again.

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And why is this not a good answer? –  andra Sep 7 '13 at 21:41
    
This answer seems fairly speculative to me. Not to mention, it goes against my personal experience... do you have references? –  Flimzy Sep 10 '13 at 0:03
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@flimzy "This document is the property of the state. The bearer of this document may pass it to a third party only if there is a statutory obligation to do so." In Mexico like in almost all countries there is a statutory obligation to hand over the document to the police when asked. It continues that in case you loose the document (i.e. confiscation) you need to contact the local authorities. –  andra Sep 11 '13 at 7:08
    
Nice quote. But what is the source? –  Flimzy Sep 11 '13 at 19:36
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That really isn't an answer to my question; it's only a proof that your answer is incorrect. A document owned by the U.S. government does not automatically become property of the local jurisdiction. That says nothing of whether or not it is legal for the local jurisdiction to confiscate it temporarily. –  Flimzy Sep 12 '13 at 6:30
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IANAL, but when you're on Mexican soil, you're legally subject to their authority. Therefore, they can legally confiscate your driver's license, and I know of no international treaty that prohibits that action. However, they can only prohibit you from driving in Mexico. I think only the US state DMV that issued the license can suspend or revoke your driving privileges in the US. I doubt the DMV will do that, because you were cited in Mexico by Mexican police.

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Just to add to the examples of it's happening, there's one case that aired on TV: The TV show, The Amazing Race had the teams in IIRC New Zeland and one was driving the speed limit in mph when the signs were in kph. That was far enough over the limit that the cop took his license on the spot. They were only allowed to continue with the teammate doing the driving.

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I believe that the argument that they should not be able to hold it is that a driver's license is not your personal property -- it is the property of the state or country that issued it (just like a passport is the property of the country that issued it), and that government agency can demand it back at any time. So the official who is holding your passport is confiscating someone else's property, without due process. However, I am not sure if they really care; it's not like your state is going to sue them in another country.

One interesting hypothetical question would be, what would happen if the state that issued your license were to formally demand it back from this official. What would he do?

In any case, I am pretty sure it would be legal for you to just apply for a replacement driver's license from your state. So it is not a very effective "guarantee".

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In fact, I travel with two driver's licenses for this exact reason. And in the past I've given a Mexican official an expired license... you're exactly right... it's not a very useful "guarantee." –  Flimzy Sep 7 '13 at 6:47
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Don't do this in Europe. Continuing driving with a second license is a criminal offense if the first is confiscated. The license is indeed not your property, but the property of the authorities. When abroad it belongs to the local authorities based on international reulgations that allow you to cross the border. –  andra Sep 7 '13 at 7:03
    
@Andra: It's a criminal offence in the U.S., too. Likely in Mexico as well. shrug When 5 of 5 traffic stops in Mexico have been the result of officials seeking a bribe, rather than really trying to enforce the law, I don't really care that I'm breaking the law in this respect in Mexico. It's pretty cheap insurance against an unjust ticket. –  Flimzy Sep 7 '13 at 14:49
    
@Flimzy I know here in the Netherlands I have to hand over the expired license as part of the procedure to get a new one. So the only way I could have 2 licenses is if one of them were a fake (which is a crime in itself). You're saying it's different in the US? –  jwenting Sep 9 '13 at 13:24
    
@jwenting Technically, you could also lie about the previous one being stolen. This obviously involves a false report to the police, itself a crime so your point still holds in a way but you would have two genuine licenses in your hand ;-) –  Relaxed Sep 11 '13 at 7:41
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