By: Debra Gersh Hernandez Concerned about proposed House bill that would restrict information that can be released by motor vehicle agencies sp.
UNLIKE IN THE Senate, a House of Representatives subcommittee plans to carefully consider legislation restricting access to information released by motor vehicle agencies. Bills introduced in November by Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) would restrict accessibility to drivers' personal information ? such as name, address and in some cases Social Security number ? available in some states simply to anyone who gives a license plate number to that state's motor vehicles division. The bills were opposed by the newspaper industry from the start (E&P, Nov. 13, 1993, p. 14). No hearing was held regarding S. 1589, which was tacked onto the crime bill as an amendment shortly before Congress adjourned in December. The crime bill is pending. Tremendous interest in the bill ? both pro and con ? then focused on the House, where the Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights recently held hearings during two days on H.R. 3365. Subcommittee chairman Don Edwards (D-Calif.) said that despite the Senate's quick action on the measure, "we plan to give it careful consideration," which includes a look at any First Amendment implications. Noting that "many times, legislation is not all black and white but subtle shades of gray," Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.) echoed Edwards' concerns about a lack of a hearing in the Senate. "This legislation was crafted with good intentions," Coble said, "but the more we steam into these waters, we run into shoals and reefs of objections. I think maybe we can negotiate some of these shoals and reefs." Highlighting the objections of a number of journalism associations were Lucy Dalglish, national chairwoman of the Society of Professional Journalists Freedom of Information Committee, and Rich Oppel, Washington bureau chief of Knight-Ridder Newspapers. "As a woman who has been stalked, I acknowledge the urge to protect is instinctive," Dalglish said, referring to an experience nearly 10 years ago, when she was followed by a man she had met only briefly in an informal setting. Dalglish was frightened but not hurt, and the harassment eventually ended. "However," she continued, "this bill will do little to protect the vulnerable from people who really want to do them harm. And it will do great harm to the ability of journalists to serve the public." Dalglish pointed to a series of print and broadcast stories that were produced using motor vehicle information and told the subcommittee, "The media are not looking for special privileges. This information should be available to anyone." One approach being considered by the subcommittee is allowing people to "opt out," which allows them to request that their address not be given out or that they be excluded from direct-marketing lists. The "opt out" system is similar to having an unlisted telephone number. "We do not support this so-called 'opt out' approach because public records should be accessible to the public that owns and pays for them," Dalglish said, "but we find this approach to be the least objectionable alternative." Constitutional questions also are raised by the legislation, Dalglish pointed out, adding, "I would anticipate a legal challenge on First Amendment grounds should you pass this bill. "The Supreme Court has made clear on numerous occasions that the public has a right to information about the operation of its government, particularly in cases where the records historically have been open to the press and public and openness has served the public interest. That is clearly the situation here," she said. "Given the list of organizations, agencies and businesses that are allowed free access to the information, the bill also unconstitutionally excludes the public and the media from access to state motor vehicle records," she said. Many of those in favor of the legislation, including Moran, point to cases of stalkers and others who have hunted down their victims through motor vehicle information. But information, Oppel pointed out, is a "neutral commodity . . . . The solution is to act against criminal conduct, not to deny information to all." With all the exemptions allowing access to the information, Oppel said, the bill "creates a false sense of security for the public. It will not stop stalkers. But it will keep information out of the hands of those [the press] who have used it for public good." Oppel also said allowing any exemptions for release of the information likely would lead to further dissemination, but sealing one class of records makes it easier to seal another. The "opt out" plan was suggested by Oppel as "a more balanced and easily administered approach . . . . This approach would give drivers reasonable assurance that their privacy at home will not be infringed by public access to DMV records and would at the same time recognize the importance of continued public access to various kinds of vehicular and driver information." Also testifying against the bill was Eddy McClain, president of a West Coast investigative firm and past president of the California Association of Licensed Investigators. Investigators use drivers' records when looking for deadbeat dads, missing people and witnesses and in probes of employee theft and industrial espionage as well as in other cases. "The three crooks who broke into my house and beat my wife and nearly killed her didn't use motor vehicle records," McClain told the subcommittee. However, Sgt. Donald Cahill, national legislative chairman of the Fraternal Order of Police and a county police officer in Virginia, said the bill would deter criminals. Cahill said the legislation addresses many concerns of police departments and urged speedy passage of it. He recounted cases in which motor vehicle information was used to find victims, including by one serial killer, and said, "The government has no business making it easier for someone with criminal intent to get this information." Agreeing with Cahill was David Beatty, director of public affairs at the National Victim Center, who said, "Accessing government records is the most common way in which abusers and stalkers find their victims once they've moved in an attempt to escape . . . . "We realize there are those who will object to even the minimum safety measures required by this bill. Businesses want to verify information, insurance companies desire information to help them set rates and marketers want to be able to solicit sales. "If this bill creates any burden at all on those entities, it is small, particularly when compared with the burden borne by those terrorized by crime," Beatty said. "The National Victim Center recognizes the need for access to personal information by legitimate government entities. But access by other entities, particularly private investigators, attorneys and the media, have led domestic abusers and stalkers directly to victims in hiding ? with disastrous results," he said. Direct Marketing Association senior vice president/government affairs Richard Barton explained that his group has developed its own "opt out" system but urged that such policies be approached at the state level. Moving them into federal jurisdiction, especially with criminal penalties, could lead to states simply eliminating the availability of information for commercial purposes, he said.