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What Does Law Enforcement Really Think About Digital IDs?

While many states have rolled out digital ID programs, the number of law enforcement agencies who accept them remains limited. One agency shared with Government Technology the challenges and successes they’ve experienced conducting traffic stops with users of digital wallets.

A police vehicle stopped on the side of the road with another vehicle in front of it. A police officer is standing in front of the open driver window of the front vehicle and interacting with someone inside.
When state patrol officers in Colorado pull over someone and ask for their license and registration, there’s a chance they’ll be shown a QR code.

Instead of passing over a plastic card and piece of paper, drivers can send their driver’s license and registration information digitally through the myColorado app to certain law enforcement partners. The driver can pull up their QR code, and the officer uses their own phone to scan and receive the information without touching the driver’s phone. It’s a contactless system that the Colorado State Patrol opted into in November 2020.

According to the myColorado app team there are two other ways law enforcement can verify digital identity: through a scannable barcode with eCitation hardware, or a visual inspection the same way an officer would look at a physical license.

“I’d say from a technology side, I don’t know of any problems we’ve run into. It’s pretty slick,” said Colorado State Patrol Sgt. Patrick Rice in an interview with Government Technology. “Once you’re in the system and logged in and somebody presents it, it’s super easy. You just scan it, it shows up and you don’t have to take anything back to the car with you.”

However, according to Sgt. Rice, the amount of times interactions with this technology actually occur is limited. He shared that while there are now 1.34 million people registered for the myColorado app, there were only 82 QR code scans by state patrol in 2022, and 191 scans in 2023.

“One million people sounds like a lot, but when you consider the size of Colorado and the people who are being contacted by police, it’s just kind of a low number right now. But I think it’s trending to be more popular,” said Sgt. Rice. “And many people, when they get stopped, they don’t think about the app. They just hand their physical ID still.”

Additionally, most law enforcement agencies in the state don’t officially accept digital IDs yet. The International Association of Chiefs of Police reports there are 246 law enforcement agencies in the state. Currently, only 17 agencies are partners of the myColorado program — albeit, including the state patrol and the municipal police of Denver, the state’s largest city.

Sgt. Rice described state patrol’s onboarding into the program as “simple,” covered by a PowerPoint that demonstrated how to download the app on their work phones and log into a law enforcement interface that allows them to scan IDs. He added that scanning IDs digitally helps avoid a common annoyance officers experience — fumbling with multiple documents.

“I can’t tell you how many times in my career I’ve dropped a driver’s license between the seat and center console and I’m digging around for it, trying to find it during a traffic stop. It’s less for us to have to hold on to and take back and forth,” said Sgt. Rice.

He also appreciates the digital ID system allows law enforcement to get sensitive information faster.

“Somebody can hand me a physical license that’s been suspended or revoked for months, and until I get back to my car and run it, I don’t know that. With a digital ID, it will present that to me immediately when I scan it,” he said.

The biggest pain point is battling dead zones.

“We have a lot of areas in our state where there’s no cell service, so if I’m receiving a digital ID from their phone to our phone and then uploading it to our computer, it can become cumbersome in those scenarios,” Sgt. Rice said.

While officers aren’t shown digital IDs often yet, Sgt. Rice said he expects that will change as more private-sector businesses start adopting the technology. However, law enforcement expects to deal with physical licenses for many years into the future.

“We’re always going to take physical licenses, there’s never going to be an expectation that we won’t,” Sgt. Rice said.
Nikki Davidson is a data reporter for Government Technology. She’s covered government and technology news as a video, newspaper, magazine and digital journalist for media outlets across the country. She’s based in Monterey, Calif.