The Supreme Court and the DPPA

[Editor's Note: The participating scholars make several references to the Driver's Privacy Protection Act, passed by Congress in 1994. Below is a brief summary of the Act and the January, 2000 Supreme Court decision that upheld it.]

As part of an omnibus crime control bill, Congress enacted the Driver's Privacy Protection Act (DPPA) in 1994. The Act prohibits the states from disclosing most personal information gathered in the process of licensing drivers. Congress passed the statute after hearing testimony that stalkers have used such information to locate their victims. While the Act provides some exemptions for law enforcement agencies, no exemption is extended to the news media.

Not incidentally, the data are also big business for some states. The state of Wisconsin, for example, generated $8 million in revenue annually by selling license information to businesses and individuals.

The state of South Carolina challenged the constitutionality of the Act on federalism grounds, arguing that the Act violated the 10th Amendment's reservation of powers to the states. A federal district court in 1997 held that the DPPA was unconstitutional, and a similar result was reached by the 4th Circuit in 1998, thereby blocking enforcement of the Act in five southern states. (To fill the void, some states, such as North Carolina, passed state laws that prohibited the release of personal information to mass marketing companies, unless the state department of motor vehicles has received prior permission from the citizen.)

In a unanimous decision on January 12th, however, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the DPPA ( Reno v. Condon, 98-1464). Speaking for the Court, Justice Rehnquist noted that "the DPPA regulates the States as owners of databases. It does not require the South Carolina Legislature to enact any laws or regulations, and it does not require state officials to assist in the enforcement of federal statutes regulating private individuals."

Media supporters and freedom of information advocates criticized the decision as a poor way to balance privacy with the public's need, and right, to know.


Spring 2000 Issue Home | The 20th Century | Celebrity and Privacy | Privacy Abuses
Driver's Privacy Protection Act | Legislation | Resources | Contributors
Credits/Disclaimers| John Ryan Leaves ABA


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