Supreme Court Bars States from Releasing Driver Information

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled this week that states can be barred from selling private companies the personal information drivers supply to state motor vehicle departments.

The court upheld the 1994 Driver's Privacy Protection Act (DPPA) that forbids states from selling the personal information from license applications. South Carolina, with support from other states, challenged the act, calling it an unconstitutional encroachment on their business. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit agreed.

However, the Supreme Court overturned the appeals court decision. Chief Justice William Rehnquist dismissed the claim, writing, "The United States asserts that the DPPA is a proper exercise of Congress' authority to regulate interstate commerce.... The DPPA does not require states in their sovereign capacity to regulate their own citizens."

Rehnquist also pointed out in the 10-page decision that "the DPPA regulates the states as the owners of databases."

Charlie Condon, South Carolina's attorney general, who brought the case against U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, expressed disappointment in the ruling. "A 'one size fits none' attempt by the federal government to protect privacy will not work," he said in a statement, adding that he has "proposed a sweeping state constitutional amendment to guarantee privacy rights to all South Carolinians. The state of South Carolina — not Washington, D.C. — can best determine how to protect the privacy of South Carolinians."

Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) applauded the court's decision. "In an era when our privacy is threatened from all directions, we should — at a minimum — be able to restrict government sales of personal data to the private sector," Barr said in a release. "I am delighted this act survived court challenges, and I hope it sends a strong message to all levels of government that profiteering from identity sales is unacceptable."

In October, Congress approved a bill that will require states to obtain drivers' permission before giving access to third parties drivers' Social Security numbers, photographs, medical conditions and other personal information (see civic.com News Feed, Oct. 8, 1999).

The Reno v. Condon decision can be found at supct.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/98-1464.ZO.html.

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