My mini-adventure with the DMV


Like every year, religiously and with anticipation, I received in the mail the envelope with the unmistakable logo of the Department of Motor Vehicles containing the invoice for the annual registration of my car. The payment, whose amount rises each year, can be made by check to the D.M.V., in person or by mail using the envelope that conveniently comes with the invoice. Or, if you prefer, by the instant magic of the internet. Simply enter the D.M.V. website, follow the links and keys to pay by credit card.

This latter method seemed the most attractive, because it saves time and effort; you don’t have to write a check, put it in an envelope, put a stamp on it and take it to the post office. Yet online, where it says, “pay,” an extra fee is added for the convenience. Each year I fall into this trap and, in order not to spend more, I pay by mail. 

So this time I put my check and the D.M.V. stub into the envelope and mailed it, a month and a half before the deadline, to avoid the late fee. Now I would wait a few weeks to receive the new registration and sticker for the rear license plate that indicates the new 2019 expiration date, and then forget about the whole thing.

But as the deadline to pay was approaching, I still had not received the new registration and sticker. So I opened the website and—surprise!—there was no record of my payment. I assumed that my check had been lost in the mail, which had happened before. Since there was no time to send in another payment, and since I did not have the stub that comes with the invoice, I tried to make an appointment with the D.M.V. online, but I could only get one after the deadline. I would have to pay the fine for late payment. 

The solution was to pay at AAA. This saved me hours at the D.M.V., where I would have stood in line without an appointment. In just 10 minutes at AAA I paid and received the registration and decal. Ugh, business fixed.

After that, I went to my bank. They advised me to cancel the lost D.M.V. check to avoid possible misuse. With that, I considered the matter over. 

But a few weeks later I received another envelope from the D.M.V. with a check for the amount of the registration and a letter of apology for charging me twice. Oh no! They had cashed my cancelled check and now I had to clear up the misunderstanding. Obviously, the check had not been lost, but was only missing when I went to AAA.

One solution, I thought, would be to not cash the D.M.V. check. Or, even better, return it, which would necessitate a visit to the D.M.V., preferably with an appointment, the very thing I had wanted to avoid from the beginning. I searched the website to see if I could solve the problem there, but there was nothing that applied to my situation. 

While thinking about what to do—after all, I had done nothing wrong, and the mess seemed more Kafkaesque by the minute—two weeks passed. This was too much time, because I received a threatening and intimidating letter from the D.M.V.

I was scolded for trying to pay by check with insufficient funds and was told I should pay the registration fee immediately, plus a fine for doing it late. Failure to do so would affect my credit rating and instigate collection by a credit company that dealt with delinquent debtors. The payment had to be made by money order or certified bank check and not by personal check, credit card or electronically. And all this after I had paid at AAA, gotten a receipt, my registration, and the sticker on my rear license plate.

I had barely digested the letter and the ridiculousness of the situation when I received another letter from the D.M.V., identical to the previous one, to make sure I had received the first and would pay as soon as possible. I asked myself what would happen if I were stopped by an officer who discovered my alleged and confusing guilt. Or if the friendly letter and check from the D.M.V. or the threatening ones that came later had also gone astray, just like my original “lost” check.

Taking advantage of a day when I woke up early, I showed up at the D.M.V. office in Petaluma, without an appointment and carrying my new registration, the certifying documents showing my payment, all the D.M.V. letters, and their no longer valid check. 

After waiting almost two hours, I tried to explain my situation to a friendly employee, who could not seem to find a logical answer on her computer. She asked for the check, consulted with someone, returned after five minutes and offered a brief apology. Without answering my question about what had happened, she said everything was in order, and bid me good day. 



Victor Reyes is a writer, translator and native of Puebla, Mexico with decades-old ties to the Point Reyes Light. He lives in Cotati.