The Supreme Court ruled unanimously yesterday that Congress can protect motorists’ privacy by barring states from selling the personal information on driver’s licenses.
The court’s ruling on the case, Reno vs. Condon, involved South Carolina’s challenge to the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act of 1994, which bars states from releasing personal information from motor vehicle records, including names, addresses, telephone and Social Security numbers and photographs. South Carolina argued that Congress’ power to regulate interstate commerce didn’t give it authority to govern the release of such state records. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed in 1998 and blocked the law’s enforcement in South Carolina, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia.
States routinely have sold driver information to direct mail companies, political candidates and businesses, thus bringing in millions of dollars in revenue each year. In writing the court’s opinion, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist agreed with the Clinton administration's argument that the law was a proper exercise of Congress’ authority to regulate interstate commerce.
A statement issued by Experian, Orange, CA, said the court’s decision along with Congress’ passage last fall of the so-called Shelby Amendment — which makes the release of such information an opt-in condition for consumers — all the more important. If states don’t comply, the government can withhold federal highway funding.
“Those provisions mandate that all state motor vehicle departments obtain the ‘express consent’ of citizens,” Experian said. “Widespread use of opt-in systems may eliminate such beneficial uses of public record information as locating lost family members, heirs and pension beneficiaries; identifying victims or potential victims of fraud
or environmental hazards; or locating organ donors.”