Supreme Court: States can’t release driver data

Wednesday, January 12, 2000

With surprising unanimity, the Supreme Court today upheld the federal Driver’s Privacy Protection Act, which bars states from releasing personal driver’s license information to the press and public.

Reno v. Condon, while not a First Amendment case, was closely watched by freedom-of-information advocates who say the law will shut down public access to valuable information.

“It’s a disappointing decision,” said Kyle Niederpruem, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, which fought passage of the law in 1994. “Now that this law is cemented by the court, we can expect more privacy legislation.”

Under the law, states can be penalized for releasing license data — including names, addresses, telephone and Social Security number and photographs — without the stated consent of individual drivers. Journalists have used the information in a variety of stories over the years, but the data is also coveted by marketers and other businesses.

One state, Wisconsin, generated $8 million in revenue annually by selling license information to businesses and individuals. Congress passed the statute after hearing testimony that stalkers have used driver’s license information to locate their targets.

The law had been challenged by South Carolina as an infringement on state power, an argument that usually appeals to the court’s conservative majority. In the latest of a series of decisions favoring states’ rights at the expense of federal power, the court yesterday struck down a federal law that allowed older workers to sue state employers for age discrimination.

But the Supreme Court’s 10-page opinion in Reno found that the law on driver’s privacy did not infringe on state powers in any unconstitutional way.

“It does not require the South Carolina legislature to enact any laws or regulations, and it does not require state officials to assist in the enforcement of federal statutes regulating private individuals,” Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote for the court.

Instead, the court said the law regulates states as “owners of the databases” from driver’s license records, which it found less objectionable.

The justices also said the information is related to interstate commerce, which is another justification for congressional action.

The law will now take full effect. Enforcement had been blocked in South Carolina, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia after the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 1998 agreed with South Carolina’s objections to the law.

Today’s decision is contrary to the public interest, says Bill Rogers, executive director of the South Carolina Press Association.

“A few years ago the Charleston Post and Courier did a story on school bus driver safety by looking at the public records of the drivers,” he said. “That kind of story that helps the public is now barred.”

The federal law was a reaction to an isolated interest, said Gregg Leslie, acting executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Washington.

“For perhaps 100 years, state legislators have always made these decisions by balancing privacy with the public need to know,” he said. “Then without research, Congress, reacting to some scares, made a sweeping decision to deny access to all this information.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Tony Mauro covers the Supreme Court for American Lawyer Media and is a legal correspondent for the First Amendment Center.