The Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) is not one nationwide agency, but 50 agencies with policies reflecting the laws of the 50 states. Some DMVs check for warrants, but many do not. However, most state DMVs have ways of catching those with driving related warrants.
DMV Warrant Check
If you have an outstanding warrant, will it show up during a visit to the DMV? That depends.
All states have agencies that handle driver's licenses and motor vehicle registrations, but each agency follows the laws of the state in which it is located. Some states allow DMV agencies to search for arrest warrants and some do not. You'll have to phone your local DMV office to find out your state's policies on that issue.
DMV Reporting Requirements
Even if a particular state's DMV doesn't run warrant checks, it is likely to have other ways of catching violators. In New York, for example, the DMV catches criminals through their photo IDs. The minute a person is photographed for a license or identification card, that photo is run through special face-recognition software to compare it to 20 million images already in a state database. Thousands of arrests have been made through this system.
In other states, the DMV learns of traffic-related warrants through court reporting requirements. Once the DMV is notified that a driver has an outstanding warrant, it won't allow that violator to obtain or renew a driver's license or to register an automobile. The violator must take steps to address the warrants before doing DMV business. This is sometimes called a DMV hold.
For example, this is the case in Ohio, where courts advise the Bureau of Motor Vehicles when people have outstanding warrants. Similarly, in California, if you fail to appear for a court hearing or to comply with a court order, a DMV hold may be placed on you.
In Colorado, the process is slightly different. When a person fails to appear for a traffic ticket, the Colorado judge issues an arrest warrant and notifies the DMV. The DMV sends a letter giving a driver a month to clear up the matter before license suspension. Colorado drivers can also have their licenses suspended for outstanding arrest warrants from other states.
Interstate Driver’s License Compact and the National Driver Register
You may wonder how one state's DMV learns of a driver's arrest warrants or traffic violations in other states. They learn through the Driver License Compact (DLC) and the National Driver Register (NDR).
The Driver License Compact is an agreement between 45 states. When a driver with a license from one state is picked up in another state for serious traffic violations, it is reported to the home state's DMV. Under the DLC, the home state treats the offense as if it had been committed within its own boundaries. The member states also enforce driver's license holds from other states.
The National Driver Register (NDR) is another way states share information about driving violations. It is a computerized national database in which states report drivers who have lost their right to drive or been convicted of serious traffic offenses. This is to prevent a violator with a suspended license in one state from crossing into another state to obtain a license.