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A second federal appeals court upholds driver's records act

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  1. Freedom of Information
A second federal appeals court upholds driver's records act 01/25/99

A second federal appeals court upholds driver’s records act


SEVENTH CIRCUIT–A unanimous federal appeals court panel in Chicago (7th Cir.) upheld the constitutionality of the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act in mid-December. Finding that Congress had the authority to enact the law, the Seventh Circuit, whose authority encompasses Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, joined the Tenth Circuit in upholding the act and rejected the Fourth Circuit’s conclusion that the act was unconstitutional on Tenth Amendment grounds.

The ruling reverses a decision in mid-June by federal District Judge Barbara Crabb in Wisconsin, who declared that the Wisconsin Division of Motor Vehicles did not have to enforce the act.

Enacted in 1994, the DPPA limits the states’ authority to grant public access to personal information in state motor vehicle records. The act has been challenged repeatedly in several jurisdictions.

Writing for the court, Seventh Circuit Judge Frank H. Easterbrook stated that the act did not affect the states as sovereigns or impermissibly interfere with essential state functions. Nor did it unconstitutionally discriminate against the states, Easterbrook wrote.

“Whatever may be said about the Act’s wisdom, it is within the commerce power and compatible with constitutional principles of federalism,” the court stated.

The appellate court concluded that the DPPA affected states in their roles as database owners, not as regulators. In rejecting arguments that the act commandeered the state’s regulatory role, the court noted that by releasing information the state was acting as a marketplace participant and not a regulator.

“Wisconsin is not more a regulator or law enforcer when it decides what information to release from its database than is the corner Blockbuster Video outlet,” the court wrote.

The court rejected the Fourth Circuit’s conclusion that the act was unconstitutional because was targeted solely at the states. Citing a Supreme Court decision upholding another law targeted solely at the states, the court concluded that the DPPA was nondiscriminatory because other information management laws placed private parties under equivalent burdens. The DPPA imposes a burden on the states that is no greater and no less complex than other laws regulating information that burden private parties and the government, it held.

Arguments that the act violated the First Amendment were rejected by the court as well. “Peering into public records is not part of the ‘freedom of speech’ that the First Amendment protects,” the court concluded. Furthermore, a facial challenge to the act was not the proper forum in which to examine whether the act violates a constitutional right of access, the court noted. (Travis v. Reno)