US High Court Upholds Driver's License Data Law

July 7, 2008 - 7:02 PM

(C\plain\lang1033\f3\fs23\cf0\b\plain\lang1033\f3\fs23\cf0 - The US Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that Congress acted within its powers by requiring that states not disclose personal data on a driver's license, a law aimed at protecting privacy and personal safety.

The high court, in a unanimous opinion written by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, declared that Congress did not violate the principles of constitutional federalism when it adopted the Driver's Privacy Protection Act of 1994.

Wire service reports say that Congress adopted the law after the 1989 murder of actress Rebecca Schaeffer, a star of the television series "My Sister Sam.'' A stalker tracked her down in Los Angeles by obtaining her home address through her state motor vehicle records.

Congress, alarmed by the potentially dangerous disclosure of such information and its possible use by stalkers, robbers and assailants, heard evidence that a national solution was needed.

The personal information for a license includes the driver's name, address, telephone number, age, height, weight and in some cases medical data. Many states also require a social security number and a photograph.

The law prohibits the unauthorized disclosure of such information. Before the law was adopted, states routinely sold data from motor vehicle records to individuals and businesses, including direct-mail companies.

The ruling was unusual because it broke a long pattern by the conservative-controlled court in a series of 5-4 rulings, including one on Tuesday, that restricted the power of Congress to adopt laws over the states.

Rehnquist said he agreed with the Clinton administration's argument that the law was a proper exercise of Congress' authority to regulate interstate commerce. "The motor vehicle information which the states have historically sold is used by insurers, manufacturers, direct marketers and others engaged in interstate commerce to contact drivers with customized solicitations. The information is also used in the stream of interstate commerce by various public and private entities,'' he said.

Rehnquist said the law was consistent with the federalism principles set out by the high court in 1992 and 1997 rulings. He acknowledged that the law may require time and effort for state employees to carry it out but ruled that it was not an unconstitutional burden. The law simply "regulates the states as the owners of databases,'' Rehnquist said.

Violators of the law may face a criminal fine, and state agencies that fail to comply may face a maximum civil penalty of $5,000 a day.

South Carolina had sued, alleging the law exceeded Congress' constitutional powers over the state -- an argument Rehnquist rejected. South Carolina law allows release of motor vehicle records as long as they are not used for telephone solicitation.

The Clinton administration defended the law, saying Congress had adopted similar laws restricting disclosure of personal information by video stores, cable television companies, credit bureaus and even the federal government.

Senator Barbara Boxer hailed the ruling. "By a unanimous vote, the Supreme Court has stated as clearly as possible that Congress has the right to protect the privacy of personal information that could be used to harm our citizens,'' the California Democrat said in a statement.