By: Debra Gersh Hernandez 32 states allow citizens to obtain names, addresses and driving records simply by providing license plate numbers; proposed federal legislation would outlaw this sp.
LEGISLATION INTENDED TO protect the privacy of drivers' records could cut off a valuable resource for journalists as well as restrict information that some believe should be public. Two bills, introduced simultaneously in the Senate by Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and in the House by Jim Moran (D-Va.), would prohibit citizens from obtaining such information as names, addresses and driving records of others simply by giving a license plate number to a state motor vehicles division.
Do laws aid stalkers?
The legislators said 32 states permit such access, which can be and has been abused by stalkers and others with malicious intent. Boxer and Moran said their bills are designed to protect the privacy and safety of individuals. But opponents of the measure point out that the bills allow exemptions for access by "legitimate" businesses and government agencies. Exemptions include federal and state court actions; auto and driver safety measures, such as recall by an automaker; "normal course of business by a legitimate business," such as an insurance company, but only to verify information; and marketing activities, although drivers have the right to request that their information not be disclosed for that reason. Further, opponents argue, if this avenue of information is closed, those with malevolent intent will find other ways to get what they need. "This bill strikes a critical balance between the governmental and business needs for this information and the rights of our consumers to safety and privacy," Boxer said at a press conference when the bills were introduced. "By focusing this legislation on the personal information . . . contained within a driver file, the bill does not limit those legitimate organizations in using the information. It does, however, restrict access to all those without a legitimate purpose," Moran said at the press conference. He conceded, "This bill by itself will not stop stalking. But it will stop state government from being an accomplice to the crime." An aide to Moran explained that under the "legitimate business" exemption, credentialed journalists could be allowed to verify information from a state motor vehicle department ? they could check if a name and address were correct, for example. However, the bills do not specifically mention reporters' rights. "If that's what they intend, I want to see it in the bill," said Jane Kirtley, executive director of the Washington-based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Kirtley pointed out that during the debate about access to the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall's papers, some people sought to deny access to journalists because they were not "legitimate researchers." But her objections to the proposal go beyond the need to clarify the bills' language.
Important source "If you talk to reporters, this is one of the most valuable sources of information they have," Kirtley said. "Cutting off access does not create position of complete secrecy. It means they can't find out where you live from the DMV [Department of Motor Vehicles] records. There are many other options . . . . "Any exemption ? for marketers, recalls, whatever ? you are creating another opportunity for information to get into the general public. It's simply common sense to say that if the information is available to certain categories of people, eventually the information will be available to anybody. That's the reality as long as there are broad-based exemptions," she added. "DMV records are a valuable source, but they are not a unique source. Unless you close down every identity-based information data source, you'll never be able to become completely anonymous," Kirtley said. While pointing out that she did not intend to accuse anyone of purposely being misleading, she said the legislation is "simply fallacious" and "unrealistic." "I'm not saying they're not responding to a valid concern, but this is not the way to deal with it," she said. "Properly drafted, anti-stalking laws can go a long way toward dealing with these problems. "There's no inherent harm in getting the information, but there is in what action you take. Why not pass a law about the behavior? In my view, they're approaching the question from the wrong direction." Kirtley also pointed out, "No one ever asks the question: Why is the government collecting all this information? "If we decide there is information the government collects that is nobody's business, we should tell the government to stop collecting it. "If there is a legitimate reason to collect the information, then one trade-off of living in an open society is keeping it open," she added. Richard Oppel, Washington bureau chief at Knight-Ridder Newspapers, knows firsthand how valuable DMV information from license plates can be to reporters. In a letter to Boxer outlining his concerns about her bill, Oppel recounted how in 1977, when he was executive editor of the Tallahassee (Fla.) Democrat, reporters there were able to expose members of the Ku Klux Klan by tracing the license plates of the otherwise unidentifiable hooded Klansmen at a rally. Publishing the identities of those community members who participated in the rally exposed them "to the great power of public shame," Oppel wrote. "I believe the Klan, an intimidating force in the South even in the 1970s, lost influence in the Tallahassee area as a result of the exposure." Oppel, an American Society of Newspaper Editors board member and member of the ASNE Freedom of Information Committee, wrote that he and other ASNE members join Boxer in her "concern and alarm about a serious problem." As a husband and the father of a 20-year-old daughter, Oppel noted that he personally is concerned about safety issues. But he said more and more, "those of us who believe in open government and the people's right to know find ourselves opposing legislation damaging to First Amendment rights and open government that is born of good motives and honorable intentions." He added, "For every bad use of DMV records or any public records, there are scores of good uses. The price of living in an open society is that the use of information can be vile. What is worse by far, however, is life in a closed society." Another area causing apprehension is the bill's vagueness in defining "legitimate business," Oppel added, pointing out that if marketing firms are allowed access to the information, a newspaper's marketing department may be able to get it while the editorial department could not. Or, he asked, would a newspaper marketing department be shut out while other commercial marketers could gain access? Oppel also pointed out that information that the bill seeks to protect is readily available from other sources. He said the plan "amounts to a prior restraint" by making disclosing or obtaining the information unlawful. "Your bill, as we see it, would badly undermine our ability to collect information and to serve the public with the facts they need to know to combat problems in society . . . facts that are seldom available except from the public record," he wrote. "Your bill would place a prior restraint on newspapers. "We respectfully suggest that society needs to act against the causes of crime rather than to conceal public information, criminalize the actions of state agencies or retrain the press," Oppel wrote. ASNE general counsel Richard M. Schmidt Jr. and Newspaper Association of America president and CEO Cathie Black attacked the proposal from a different angle. The two co-signed a letter to each member of the Senate, expressing their opposition and calling senators' attention to an attempt to attach the DMV bill as an amendment to the crime bill being considered by the Senate. This bill, they noted, was introduced in late October "and has not received a full airing of the issues involved with restrictions on access to public records. We urge a careful and studious review of the negative impact of this proposal on the press." Schmidt and Black also pointed out that a similar law in California "has impeded the press' ability to cover stories on the impact of the Los Angeles riots on Korean businessmen, the emergence of new neighborhood gangs and plant layoffs." ? ("For every bad use of DMV records or any public records, there are scores of good uses. The price of living in an open society is that the use of information can be vile. What is worse by far, however, is life in a closed society." ? Richard Oppel, Washington bureau chief at Knight-Ridder Newspapers) [Photo and Caption]