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U.S. Supreme Court takes up driver's license data privacy

by Heather Hayes


May 21, 1999
Web posted at: 4:00 PM EDT

(IDG) -- In a move that could have long-term ramifications for individual privacy concerns and state autonomy over public records, the U.S. Supreme Court announced Monday that it will decide whether or not states have the right to sell or distribute personal information collected from driver's license applications.

The litigation fueling the issue is Reno v. Condon -- South Carolina's challenge to the 1994 Driver's Privacy Protection Act (DPPA). The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last September struck down the law as unconstitutional, and the Supreme Court is poised to review that decision.

In its decision, the Appeals Court ruled that Congress was stepping illegally into state territory and noted further that there exists no constitutional right to privacy in information contained in public records.
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DPPA was passed in the aftermath of the murder of actress Rebecca Schaeffer, slain by a stalker who found her residential address through the California Department of Motor Vehicles. The law bars states and their employees from selling or releasing personal information such as Social Security numbers, photographs, addresses, telephone numbers and birthdays.

Until the law was passed, at least 35 states had made motor vehicle records public in some form, and many had routinely sold personal information to direct marketing firms, businesses, charities, other organizations and even private individuals. New York, for example, earned $17 million in one year selling drivers' records, according to the U.S. Justice Department.

But the 1997 law contains several exceptions that allow personal information to be released to law enforcement officials, courts, government agencies, private investigators and even businesses such as insurance companies.

The one group that didn't receive an exception was the media. Free speech advocates complain that the Driver's Privacy Protection Act violates the First Amendment, and many, including the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Newspaper Association of America, supported the South Carolina challenge.

South Carolina Attorney General Charlie Condon, when hearing that the Supreme Court agreement to hear the case, said he believed citizens have a right to keep their privacy protected -- which he says is guaranteed by a clause in the South Carolina Constitution. But the real question is who should be enforcing that protection Condon said. Condon and other state officials strongly believe that states should have full autonomy when it comes to administering public records. In the case before the Supreme Court, South Carolina will argue that the new federal law violates the 10th Amendment.

"The people of Carolina established drivers' records, maintained them, and have a right to determine their use," he said in a statement. "South Carolina should be run by South Carolinians. If the federal government can tell us what to do with these records, it can tell us we can't keep records at all. The 10th Amendment is the legal and spiritual guardian of state rights. Washington, D.C., is a long way from South Carolina, and the federal government needs to keep its distance."

The U.S. Justice Department, meanwhile, argues that the federal government has the right to regulate the records under the Constitution's commerce clause. Specifically, DOJ contends that new law regulates the disclosure of personal information by DMV offices in the same way that similar federal statutes regulate disclosures by video stores, cable television companies, credit bureaus and electronic communication services. Officials declined to comment on the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to hear the case.

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