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I just read about a Canadian who was jailed in Georgia for driving with an Ontario licence. We’ll be renting a car while in the United States next month and I’m a little worried now – do I need to be carrying my passport with me while I’m driving? Usually, I leave it in the safe at the hotel so it doesn’t get stolen when we’re at the beach. – Sharon, Ottawa

Technically, you’ve got to keep your papers with you at all times while in the United States – while driving or anywhere else. And these days, technicalities might matter.

“It’s pretty archaic, but there is a standard,” said Tim Golden, U.S. practice director for Toronto immigration-law firm Green and Spiegel. “It comes out of Section 264 of the Immigration and Nationality Act … you are obligated to be carrying with you the evidence that you used to enter into the United States.”

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According to that section, if you don’t have the passport or other documents you used to get into the United States, you could face a maximum US$100 fine and up to 30 days in jail.

“But the reality is, have we ever seen it [enforced]? Never,” said immigration lawyer Evan Green, a partner in the firm.

And that rule wasn’t the reason an Ontario woman was arrested by local police in Georgia last month for driving without a licence – despite carrying a valid Ontario driver’s licence.

Driving while Canadian?

Emily Nield, 27, was driving from Florida to Tennessee on the I-75 on April 2 when she was stopped by a Cook County, Ga. police officer for driving 17 miles an hour (27 km/h) over the 70-mile-an-hour (112 km/h) speed limit.

“I was driving my car with Ontario licence plates, the officer saw the Canadian licence and she just looked at it for a few moments and said it was not valid,” Nield told Globe Drive. “She reached in through the window and she put handcuffs on me while I was in my car.”

In a statement to CBC News, the Cook County Sheriff’s Office said because of fears of identity theft and impersonation, when police encounter a driver with an out-of-country licence, they “follow Georgia [Department of Driver Services] guidelines and request a passport or visa to verify their identity.”

But Nield said she told the arresting officer she had photos of her passport, birth certificate and Nexus card on her phone – the originals were in her friend’s safe in Tennessee – but the officer didn’t want to see them.

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“She kept insisting that I could not drive with my Canadian driver’s licence,” said Nield, who finished a master’s degree in geology last fall at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and had returned to the United States in February to travel and visit friends. “She said normally, I would have just received a speeding ticket and been on my way.”

Nield said she was hysterical and crying as her car was searched and she was taken to the sheriff’s office in Adel, Ga., where she was fingerprinted and had her mugshot taken.

“They said I maintained every Canadian stereotype of being polite,” Nield said. “So because of that, they let me put on the orange jumpsuit over my normal clothes.”

Nield said police told her to pay the US$880 bail on the spot – she didn’t have cash so she had to give police her debit card and password – or she’d stay in jail until June 12.

“I found out later that I had the right to see a judge before the bond was made,” she said. “As soon as I paid the bond, [a sergeant] said, ‘I just Googled the law and your licence is valid.’”

Nield stayed in the United States for another month until the charge was dismissed and the arrest record was erased.

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Does Georgia require a passport?

Even if this was just a case of a local officer misunderstanding the law, do Canadian drivers in Georgia really need to carry their passports?

Georgia Department of Driver Services (DDS) spokeswoman Susan Sports pointed us to their website. It said maybe.

“Georgia recognizes unexpired driver’s licenses issued to and held by residents of other countries as long as the foreign license is unexpired,” the DDS website states. “In the case of a driver license issued by the driver’s licensing authority of a foreign country, a law officer may consult such person’s passport or visa to verify the validity of such license, if available.”

So, aren’t Canadian drivers licences valid in every American state? Yes, Canadians can drive “pretty much anywhere in the U.S.” with their licence as long as it’s valid, the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA) said.

“Within U.S. states there can be hundreds of police services – and although all cops should know the state law, there are these very rare cases where they don’t,” said Kristine D’Arbelles, CAA spokeswoman, in an e-mail.

Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation (MTO) said it was not aware of any other Ontario drivers who have had unexpired licences rejected in the United States.

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The United States and Canada are both part of the Geneva Convention on Road Traffic, an agreement between 98 countries to accept driver’s licences with a valid International Driving Permit (IDP).

“In most cases, Ontario licences are accepted in the States, but it is up to each state if they require any additional documentation [such as] a passport, birth certificate or International Driving Permit,” MTO spokesman Joshua Henry said in an e-mail statement.

The CAA’s D’Arbelles said she wasn’t aware of any states that require the $25 IDP.

In 2017, Georgia repealed a law that required Quebec drivers to carry it along with their Quebec licence. In 2013, Florida backed down from a similar law that had been sparked by cases where officers didn’t understand the French on the licences.

Passport at home?

To add to the confusion, you may not have your passport wth you to show to police if they ask.

That’s because drivers from British Columbia, Manitoba and Ontario who have enhanced driver’s licences can enter the United States by land without a passport. In Ontario, more than 84,000 drivers have enhanced driver’s licences. Quebec phased out its enhanced licence program in 2014.

“As an added layer of security and peace of mind, if you are travelling and driving in the U.S., it is best to keep paper copies of other identification such as a passport or an IDP,” said CAA’s D’Arbelles.

To avoid carrying your passport, you could also print out a copy of your visa and show it if asked by either local police or, if it comes to that, immigration officers, Golden said. What visa? When you cross the border to the United States, you get an I-94 visa. They don’t actually hand it to you, but you can look it up online, Golden said.

And could you actually be asked for it while in the United States? Potentially, Golden said.

A Trump administration memo gave Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and CBP officers “carte blanche to say how and when they’ll exercise their authority,” Golden said. That’s also led to local police being more vigilant overall.

In Nield’s case, she said the officer didn’t believe that her Ontario licence was valid on U.S. roads, period. But the officer also told her that the licence could have been fake.

“She said I could have been an illegal Mexican coming across the border,” Nield said

Have a driving question? Send it to globedrive@globeandmail.com. Canada’s a big place, so let us know where you are so we can find the answer for your city and province.

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