German police call into question validity of USAREUR license
By JENNIFER SVAN, MARCUS KLOECKNER AND JOHN VANDIVER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 14, 2015
Some German police say they will not recognize military-issued driver’s licenses if the bearer doesn’t also possess a valid stateside license, a situation that raises concerns about whether many U.S. troops and civilians could face penalties for driving illegally.
U.S. Army Europe said Wednesday that the issue was “in dispute” and cautioned that there was misinformation circulating through the U.S. military community in Germany.
However, German police officials said that the regulations were clear, that anyone driving without a valid stateside license would be violating the law, and that the USAREUR license alone was not valid.
Across the U.S. military community in Germany, there was a sense of panic on social media forums about the apparent new German policy.
It could cause problems for many active duty and civilian personnel whose licenses have expired while they have been overseas. Historically, a military license has been considered sufficient to drive in Germany.
“There is a great deal of misinformation circulating around U.S. military installations in Germany regarding driving privileges,” USAREUR spokeswoman Hilde Patton said. “Among others, the following statement has been disseminated: ‘Under the SOFA, USAREUR driver’s licenses are only valid if accompanied by a current U.S. State Driver’s License.’ This statement is not correct because the matter is in dispute.”
“The U.S. position remains that .... expired U.S. state licenses should be now, as for the last 20 years, a valid basis for operating a POV (personal vehicle) when the driver is also in possession of a valid USAREUR Certificate of License” issued under the NATO Status of Forces supplementary agreement, Patton said.
Barry Henderson, a 48-year-old civilian employee at Ramstein Air Base, learned about the apparent new regulations the hard way when he had to turn over his car keys to German police after failing to produce a current stateside license during a random midday traffic stop near Weilerbach last Thursday.
“The only thing that the police at the scene told me was not knowing the law wasn’t an excuse,” said Henderson, who was escorted back to base by police and forced to leave his car on the side of the road .
When his wife later drove him to police headquarters in Kaiserslautern to pick up his keys, Henderson, who’s Georgia license expired in 2004, was told that without a current stateside license, his USAREUR license was valid only on base. The change, he was told, went into effect Jan. 1.
“All of us were pretty much unaware of this,” he said. “My chain of command, my co-workers, nobody was aware of this.”
Hermann-Josef Decker, deputy chief of police in Baumholder, told Stars and Stripes his department was recently informed of the new license requirement by the Rhineland Palatinate’s Interior Ministry, which asserted that a USAREUR license was no longer sufficient.
“It is basically driving without a license,” Decker said.
However, a spokeswoman for the Westpfalz police in Kaiserslautern said the regulations have long required a valid stateside license. According to a statement she forwarded from the police traffic department, Americans living in Germany under the SOFA have “only one driving permit” — the state license. The USAREUR Certificate of License functions merely as a translation of the stateside license, as well as proof that the bearer is affiliated with the U.S. Defense Department and has acquired adequate knowledge of German rules of the road, the statement said. The USAREUR license “is not a driver’s license,” the statement said.
Requests for information from Germany’s Foreign Ministry and the state governments in Bavaria, Hessen, Baden Württemberg and Rhineland Palatinate were not immediately answered.
Patton said the new position of German authorities contradicted a previous commitment from 1993 confirming that an expired U.S. license combined with a valid USAREUR license would be considered “a valid basis” to drive a USAREUR-plated car under the SOFA supplementary agreement.
“It is a basic principle of public international law that provisions of an international agreement ... take precedence over the provisions of the domestic law of a country that is a party to the agreement when the two are in conflict,” Patton said. “Questions of international law are not decided unilaterally by one party to an international agreement but through consultation between the parties.”
In this case, she said, it is not for the interior or justice authorities at the state or federal level to decide, but by the German Foreign Office and the U.S. Embassy.
The U.S. Embassy referred queries to USAREUR.
A complicating factor is that some U.S. states regard licenses held by U.S. servicemembers overseas as valid, even after they have expired.Patton said those without a valid U.S. license risk being stopped by German police and charged with driving without “an appropriate operator’s permit.”
However, whether that was “factually and legally correct is an open question,” she said.
USAREUR officials said those who run into problems with the police off post, should contact the local legal office.
Stars and Stripes reporter Michael Darnell contributed to this report.