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Legislature restricts access to motor vehicle, accident records

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    NMU         UTAH         Freedom of Information         May 4, 2000    

Legislature restricts access to motor vehicle, accident records

  • The state of Utah has closed off access to drivers’ records unless the individual has chosen to “opt in” to disclosure.

Access to traditionally public information contained in motor vehicle records and accident reports has been substantially curtailed by two laws that went into effect May 1.

Under one of the laws, a driver’s name, address and other identifying information cannot be released to the public unless the driver has previously consented to its release. Other, non-identifying information contained in the records is entirely off limits under the law. The law’s so-called “opt-in” provision was enacted in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s January decision in Reno v. Condon, which upheld the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act of 1994.

The other new law preserves a right of access to accident reports for police and law-enforcement investigators but denies access to businesses and individuals unless they have a personal stake in the accident. Both laws were passed by wide margins in both chambers of the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Michael Leavitt in March. Supporters say the laws were needed to protect the privacy of Utah residents.

The first law, however, contains several exemptions that give access to businesses with “legitimate” needs for motor vehicle records, including insurance companies, automobile dealers and manufacturers, towing companies and private investigators. The second law did not create an exemption for businesses, but it did recognize one for the news media. It allows the press access only to basic information contained in accident reports: the name, age, sex and hometown of a person involved in an accident, the location of a crash and the makes and models vehicles involved. The law, however, does not define what individuals or news organizations the exemption covers.

Both laws also make it illegal to use properly obtained information for any commercial purpose, including soliciting customers. A similar restriction in a California law passed constitutional muster in the U.S. Supreme Court’s December 1999 holding in Los Angeles Police Department v. United Reporting Publishing Co., in which a majority of the court ruled that a state may condition access to public information on how the information will be used.

(S.B. 174, Use of Driver License Information; H.B. 243, Protection of Accident Reports)

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