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Appellate court finds federal driver privacy law unconstitutional

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  1. Freedom of Information
Appellate court finds federal driver privacy law unconstitutional 09/21/98 FOURTH CIRCUIT--In early September a federal appeals panel in Richmond (4th…

Appellate court finds federal driver privacy law unconstitutional

09/21/98

FOURTH CIRCUIT–In early September a federal appeals panel in Richmond (4th Cir.) held unconstitutional a federal law requiring states to limit access to personal information contained in state motor vehicle records. The panel, in a 2-1 decision, affirmed a South Carolina district court’s holding that Congress lacked the constitutional authority to enact the federal Driver’s Privacy Protection Act.

The appellate court concluded that there is no constitutional right to privacy in personal information contained in motor vehicle records and that Congress’ attempt to control the states’ dissemination of this information infringed on their sovereignty.

Writing for the majority, Judge Karen Williams noted that neither the U.S. Supreme Court nor the federal appellate court had ever found a privacy interest in information contained in motor vehicle records. “This is the very sort of information to which individuals do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy,” Williams wrote, adding that such information is routinely provided to others when one uses a state-issued driver’s license as identification.

According to the court, the act was intended to halt the easy access to, and “the active commerce” in, personal information contained in state motor vehicle records. The court noted that direct marketers and criminals were among those who used the information.

The act limits the public disclosure of personal information gathered in connection with motor vehicle records by motor vehicle department officers, employees and contractors. It also prohibits “any person” from knowingly obtaining or disclosing personal information for uses other than those specified in the act.

South Carolina, which like most states has its own laws governing access to information contained in its motor vehicle records, challenged the act on the grounds that it violated the Tenth and Eleventh Amendments. The district court agreed and enjoined its enforcement in that state. On appeal the federal government argued that Congress’ actions were lawful attempts to regulate activities it believed to affect interstate commerce and an individual’s right to privacy.

The Washington Post reported that Justice Department officials are considering an appeal. (Condon v. Reno; Counsel for South Carolina: Kenneth Paul Woodington, Columbia)