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Federal government can regulate state driver information

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    NMU         U.S.

    NMU         U.S. SUPREME COURT         Freedom of Information         Jan 12, 2000    

Federal government can regulate state driver information

  • The nation’s highest court has rejected a challenge to the constitutionality of the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act of 1994.

In a decision that departs, at least temporarily, from the growing movement toward preserving states’ rights, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that a major personal privacy law is a proper exercise of congressional power.

Writing for the Court, Chief Justice William Rehnquist said the Constitution’s Commerce Clause gives Congress the authority to enact the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act of 1994, which regulates the sale of driver information by states.

“Because drivers’ information is, in this context, an article of commerce, its sale or release into the stream of business is sufficient to support congressional regulation,” Rehnquist wrote.

The DPPA, which was enacted in part out of fears that stalkers could obtain personal information about their victims from driving records, requires states releasing driver information to ensure that the release is authorized by the driver and that the information will be used only for specifically authorized uses such as law enforcement and insurance coverage.

While the law does not ban states from releasing or selling the information collected from drivers, the regulatory scheme imposed on states that continue to release the information is an unconstitutional burden on states’ rights, the attorney general for South Carolina, Charlie Condon, had charged.

Condon brought suit in federal District Court in South Carolina, alleging that the DPPA violated the Constitution’s Tenth and Eleventh Amendments. The court agreed that the law violated the principles of federalism, which protect states’ rights, and enjoined authorities from enforcing the DPPA. The U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond (4th Cir.) affirmed.

The federal government defended the DPPA on grounds that driver information is an instrument of interstate commerce that Congress can regulate. Solicitor General Seth Waxman, who argued on behalf of the federal government in oral arguments before the court in November 1999, said: “If this database were a database from a financial institution, there would be no question Congress could regulate it if there was a substantial effect on interstate commerce. . . . The people of South Carolina are, of course, citizens of the United States, and they have the right to call upon the federal government to protect their rights.”

Waxman also pointed to a recent appropriations bill that authorized the DPPA under Congress’ spending power as further proof that the law was constitutional.

The court did not address that issue, instead focusing on the inherent power states have to be free of federal regulation and intervention. But unlike other recent federalism cases, in which the court said Congress had overreached by requiring states to regulate its citizens, this case was constitutional because it instead regulated only state action.

“We agree with South Carolina’s assertion that the DPPA’s provisions will require time and effort on the part of state employees, but reject the state’s argument that the DPPA violates” federalism principles the court has articulated in recent state-rights cases, Rehnquist wrote. “[T]he DPPA does not require the states in their sovereign capacity to regulate their own citizens. The DPPA regulates states as the owners of databases.”

(Reno v. Condon)

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