Mexico: Can the Police Lawfully Keep My Drivers License Until I Pay a Traffic Ticket?

This is a common question that I’m asked directly by readers of the blog and that I see pop up from time to time in Facebook groups about Mexico.

Judging by the comments on Facebook, the consensus among tourists and expats is that the answer is a firm “no” and that it’s only a bluff by a corrupt cop to get a bribe. That prevailing belief leads to some very interesting recommendations from fellow group members that vary from refusing to handover your license to carrying a stack of laminated copies of your license in your glove box.

Many of the recommendations, if followed, could land you a starring role in a future episode of Locked Up Abroad. I may address some of those in a future post, but for now, let’s just answer the million dollar question that appears in the title.

Can the Police Lawfully Keep My License Until I Pay a Traffic Ticket?

It depends on the jurisdiction. Many states and municipalities have sections in their traffic laws that authorize officers to seize and retain the violator’s driver’s license, registration card and/or license plate to guarantee that payment is made. 

That means it really comes down to where you are stopped and who stops you (federal, state or municipal).

A Real-Life Example

This particular post was inspired by a reader who wrote to tell me that a transit officer in Cancun had stopped her husband for supposedly speeding. The officer told him that he was going to issue a citation and that his license would be retained until he went to the station to pay it the next day. The reader questioned the legality of seizing the license, and well, here we are.

Cancun is located in the municipality of Benito Juarez. Article 178 of Benito Juarez’s Traffic Regulations (Reglamento de Tránsito para el Municipio de Benito Juárez, Quintana Roo) specifically authorizes the seizure of the license as a guarantee:

Artículo 178.- Tratándose de vehículos con placas de circulación de otros países, entidades federativas o del Estado de Quintana Roo, los policías de tránsito podrán retener al infractor como garantía del pago sobre las infracciones cometidas al presente Reglamento, considerando el orden siguiente de acuerdo a lo que tenga disponible:

I.- La licencia para conducir o permiso provisional para conducir vigente, según sea el caso;
II.- La tarjeta de circulación;
III.- Las placas de circulación, y en caso, cuando el vehículo se encuentre estacionado en lugar
prohibido, y no se encuentre el conductor o el propietario del vehículo o estando presentes, uno
u otro, no muevan voluntariamente el vehículo; y
IV.- El vehículo.

I could keep listing similar laws for other Mexican municipalities, but I think you get the point.

By the way, there are 2,448 municipalities in Mexico, so please refrain from asking me in the comments section about the laws for different ones. You guys will just have to research those on your own.

Let’s Wrap This Up

When you think about it, it makes sense. How else would the local governments ever compel people, especially a foreigner with a foreign license, to pay his or her traffic fines?

The problem is that some corrupt cops use this as leverage to encourage foreigners to pay a bribe to avoid returning for their license the next day. This sort of thing happens with greater frequency when tourists are driving back to the airport to fly out.

If you’re interested in hearing my tips on how to handle police corruption when driving, join our Patreon page to access that article as well as other exclusive content.

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About the Author

Qroo Paul
Paul Kurtzweil (Q-Roo Paul) was a deputy sheriff in Florida for 25 years before retiring at the rank of lieutenant in 2015. He and his wife moved to Mexico looking to maximize their retirement income. They later started a blog called Two Expats Mexico (qroo.us) to share their experiences, as well as information about the logistical and legal aspects of retiring south of the border.

17 Comments on "Mexico: Can the Police Lawfully Keep My Drivers License Until I Pay a Traffic Ticket?"

  1. I got a parking ticket at the huge Tuesday market in San Miguel de Allende…on my US plated car. Hell yes, I paid it. .took with me: passport, insurance, drivers licence, registration, tip, took a photo of my remaining plate, a smile and lots of pesos.. $9 US. Just saying. I’ve heard if ticket is not paid goes in computer which causes big problems exiting and returning. Just saving. April Ottavian

  2. Where can you find a list of the municipalities? Mine is probably either La Paz or just Todos Santos because that’s where I live.

    • You find the municipality for a particular town by Googling the name of the town and checking out the Wikipedia page.

      To find the traffic laws, start by Googling “reglamento de transito de municipio de (name of municipality)” . It may have a slightly different title, but that’s a good jumping point. There are some other ways to find it but that’s probably the fastest if you’re not too tech-savvy.

  3. 6 years ago I was sitting in a cafe having lunch on a arterial street in Playa Del Carmen.It was my first time in the Yucatan. Two motorcycle cops pulled up in front of the cafe and got off their cycles and retrieved two cordless drills from the cycles saddle bags and proceeded to remove the license plates from 6 vehicles parked along the length of the block to the corner. I stepped out of the cafe to observe further and spied a lone, no parking sign way at the other end of the block. I was in awe that the police were removing the plates!. The owner of the cafe told me that that was the way the city collects fees. The car owners can get their plates back at the transito officina by paying a $1000 peso fine. I now look for signs every where I drive and park in MX. I have also replaced the screws for my vanity plates so they can’t be removed without a special tool. I also carry an expired drivers license which I show when asked(3 times in 10 years) . It’s never been challenged. Bribes have been implied. A $50 peso note usually does the trick.

  4. I received a ticket for going through a red light shortly after we arrived here, 13 years ago. And yes, I was guilty – traffic lights are not always in the same position here like they are in the US. I just did not see it. The officer was very courteous. He took my license and wrote out a receipt for me, explaining that if I needed to show my license before I retrieved it, this would work as a substitute. I paid my ticket at the local policia office the next day ($110 pesos) and received my license back. You should have seen the drawer full of licenses!

  5. I as well have witnessed plates being removed in Playa Del Carmen of cars in no parking areas.

  6. OK, Over thirty years ago, before Cell Phones, Traffic Cams and all the enforcement tools that are employed here today, I was stopped by what looked like a Policeman, (but looked more like a Security Guard off Duty), for a parking violation. In addition, he clearly had been drinking and was on foot, so I was suspect of the entire encounter. When he asked for my license, I gave it to him as I would have expected to do from the Guide Books we carried and read. Then he said something about all these rich gringos that come here and think they can do anything they want. That was enough for me. I reached over, snatched my license out of his hand and drove away, watching to see what he did in the rear view mirror. He dutifully blew on his whistle a few times. No one came to his aid and I drove to our hotel. That was then, this is now. I do carry many copies of my license, and thus far have never actually been required or even asked to hand over the actual card. As long as they can see that I have proof of a valid card, they seem fine. Mind you, because of all the new security stuff, I would never do what I did now. Heck, I was still in my 30’s and much bolder than I am now in my 60’s! Thanks for this Paul!

    • The copies of a license don’t provide much assistance because Mexico is not linked to the databases in the U.S. and Canada, and therefore, cannot check to see if a license actually exists. Counterfeiting of identification documents is common in Mexico, so seeing the original helps them verify common security features (UV, holograms etc) that are missing from the copy. The laws read that you have to have a license to drive and a copy may not suffice. We’ve heard of some instances when it did not.

      Back on the U.S. side when I worked as a deputy sheriff, sometimes people would present photocopies of their driver’s license instead of the original. That didn’t work there either and they would be cited for failure to carry and display.

      Just some advice in case you run into that one cop who knows his transit law book a little better than the rest…lol.

      Happy motoring, Fred. 🙂

  7. Good one! Thank you. Those fb exchanges drive me crazy. Often the blind leading the blind. If I get serious about a move I will subscribe to your patreon page.

  8. So, a ticket is not a summons to appear to discover ‘if’ you are guilty or not by a magistrate but the cop is judge and jury on the scene? Uber and buses are my friend so far here in Mexico.

    • It’s simply a traffic ticket. If you disagree and would like to dispute it, you have that option. In Florida where I worked as a deputy sheriff for 25 years, it worked this way too. I can tell you that out of every 100 citations I wrote, maybe one would request a court hearing.

      The nice thing about Mexico is that in most jurisdictions you get a 50% discount for paying early, usually within 5 days.

  9. Thanks for the always good information… Possibly our only concern as we prepare to move to the Yucatan is getting from the border at Laredo, to Progreso… We’ll be driving a pickup with our two dogs and a cat in the back seat, towing a trailer with all my wife’s worldly possessions, (my suitcase too) and have seen the comments… Drive daytime only, stay on the toll roads, copies of driver’s licenses, two wallets, not a lot of cash, etc. etc. Updated paperwork for the pets,(although it seems easier now than it has been). I guess the final piece of the puzzle for me is… Where to stay along the way, once we get into Mexico ? From a safety and security perspective is there a reputable chain of hotel/motels that are clean, allow pets and have a place we can safely park an enclosed trailer that you can recommend or provide your comments on ? Thanks Paul, you’ve been a big part of our decision to move to the Yucatan, and hope to live there…. “Happily Ever After” !!

  10. To Kevin Brady,
    I have been in your situation many times driving from Nogales to Mazatlán and have always stayed at the no tell motels that line the highway. They are safe and secure and cheap. Sometimes you get an enclosed garage, and at other times they pull a curtain across the back of your vehicle, but they all only have one way in and out, with a high wall around the entire complex. My SUV was always loaded so security of the vehicle was most important.

  11. Connie Abendschein | November 22, 2019 at 7:24 pm | Reply

    There is a regulation that tourist can be stopped twice before they will be issued a ticket and only receive a warning. if you show this to a cop you should be able to get away without paying anything REGLAMENTO DE TRÁNSITO DEL ESTADO DE QUINTANA ROO, ARTICULO 241.- Se establece en el Estado; la Boleta de Infracción de Cortesía que la Dirección de Tránsito, en su jurisdicción respectiva aplicará exclusivamente a los Turistas que infrinjan el Reglamento de Tránsito. La Boleta de Infracción de Cortesía no implica costo alguno al que se impone, siendo su objetivo señalar la violación cometida y exhortar a conducir cumpliendo con las reglas de Tránsito. La Sanción de Cortesía es aplicada hasta en dos ocasiones al mismo vehículo y/o conductor y no procede en los casos de actos y omisiones graves contrarios a lo que dispone el presente Reglamento.

    – [ ] I did a post on the regulation and included a PDF you can print and carry in your car. http://qroo.us/2018/05/16/this-card-might-get-you-out-of-a-traffic-ticket-when-visiting-cancun-or-the-riviera-maya/

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