High Court to Hear Driver Privacy Case
By Joan Biskupic
The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to take up a challenge to a federal law that forbids states from disclosing the personal information motorists provide to obtain a driver's license.
The dispute, to be heard next fall, cuts to the heart of privacy concerns in today's high-technology age, when data can be transferred at the touch of a button. More broadly, the case could become important in the Rehnquist court's effort to curtail what it believes are unwarranted federal intrusions into states' prerogatives. A narrow but determined majority has struck down several acts of Congress in recent terms as encroaching on state authority.
The 1994 Driver's Privacy Protection Act arose from congressional concern about stalkers and other criminals who used motor vehicle records to track down their victims -- particularly the case of actress Rebecca Schaeffer, who was murdered in 1989 by a man who found her California address through motor vehicle records. The law generally forbids personal information from being disclosed but provides numerous exceptions for public safety, anti-fraud and other authorized purposes.
Several states say the act, which began taking effect in most places in 1997, is an unconstitutional burden on them. They object not only to the prohibition on disclosing data that they routinely sell to businesses, but also contend that because the statute is riddled with exceptions, it is complicated to carry out.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the law last year, ruling that Congress was impermissibly forcing states to run a federal program. But appeals courts nationwide have been divided over the constitutionality of the act, and in the South Carolina case taken yesterday, both the Justice Department and the state said the Supreme Court should decide the issue once and for all.
Motorists typically provide an array of information to obtain a driver's license, including name, address, telephone number and, in some cases, Social Security number, medical information and photographs. States often pass along this information to individuals and businesses, sometimes making considerable money from it. The Justice Department said New York's motor vehicle department earned $17 million in one year by selling driver records.
In its appeal, the Justice Department asserts that the law was a legitimate use of Congress's power to regulate interstate commerce after lawmakers found the "nefarious" use of personal records "posed a sufficient threat to individuals' personal safety and autonomy."
But in challenging the law as a burden on the states, South Carolina officials said in Reno v. Condon, "The practical reality of the matter is that [it] commands the states to maintain a broad and ongoing administrative effort."
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