'All kinds of ways weirdos can track you down'

February 03, 1994|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff Writer

She knows she's breaking the law, but a 28-year-old Maryland woman refuses to give her address to the Motor Vehicle Administration for fear that the man who promised to kill her will track down her family.

"I know he probably won't come after us, but I still worry," said the former Ellicott City resident, who was threatened by a neighbor for reporting his wife-beating to police. "There are all kinds of ways weirdos can track you down."

The woman was fearful because she lived in California when actress Rebecca Schaeffer was gunned down at her Los Angeles apartment in 1989 by a man who obtained her address from driver's license records. California has restricted access to driving and vehicle registration information since then, but about two-thirds of states, including Maryland, have not.

Legislation has been introduced in the Maryland General Assembly to make MVA files confidential. A similar measure that would take effect nationwide was passed by the Senate last year, and a House subcommittee is to hear testimony in Washington today on a companion bill sponsored by Rep. James P. Moran, D-Va.

In the age of information highways and with rising concern over violence, the privacy issue is hot.

"A lot of people feel very insecure with crime out there," said Del. Ann Marie Doory, D-Baltimore. "Anybody can check your address, your driving record, your car. It's all out there for people to see."

But the efforts to reduce access to MVA records have provoked concerns from some organizations that depend on unfettered access.

They include automobile insurance companies, direct marketing firms, private investigators and the media.

"There are babies that would be thrown out in this bathwater," warned W. Marshall Rickert, the MVA's administrator.

In Maryland, a driver's name, address, age and driving infractions have always been public record. If he or she owns a car, its make, model and mileage are also public.

The MVA charges $5 for a copy of a person's driving record, $10 if it's certified. Automobile titles cost 25 cents a page. A mailing list is 5 cents a name with a minimum $500 cost.

Last year, the MVA processed more than 2 million requests for information, earning the state more than $14 million.

The proposals pending in Annapolis and Washington recognize legitimate uses for MVA records. Each has exemptions for businesses such as insurers and banks.

Those companies represent the bulk of the requests received by the MVA. Insurers, for instance, track driving records to set automobile insurance rates. Lenders often use the records to confirm a person's identity and pursue delinquencies.

Also exempted are the person who owns the information (a driver can look up his or her own record), federal, state and local courts and law enforcement agencies.

Ms. Doory's proposed Maryland law lists even more exemptions for licensed private detectives, manufacturers (for safety recalls) and researchers.

If Congress acts, its version would ultimately pre-empt state laws, potentially closing such loopholes.

Under both federal and state proposals, drivers would have the option of checking a box on the registration renewal or driver's license application to prevent their addresses from being sold to direct-mail companies. That's unlikely to have much effect -- less than 1 percent of drivers have opted for the protection in states where it's offered.

But there are plenty of groups that would lose their privileges: towing companies who use license plates to find owners of vehicles; families searching for missing relatives, children seeking birth parents.

Journalists treasure motor vehicle records, not only for stories about safety -- school bus drivers who have drunk-driving convictions, for example -- but also to seek out sources or verify identities, said Rebecca Daugherty of the Washington-based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

In recent years, she said, newspapers used the records to expose congressmen who don't live in their legislative districts and to disclose Ku Klux Klan activities in Florida.

"We think it would be devastating for journalists all over the country who use them every day," Ms. Daugherty said. "It allows only government and big business to have access to information."

Opponents also question whether legislation is needed. No one knows how often motor vehicle records are used by criminals -- stalkers included -- but cases such as the California murder are considered rare.

Court records, deeds and voter registration lists contain similar information but do not face restrictions.

Mr. Rickert said he has received only a handful of complaints about privacy in his nine-year tenure as MVA administrator. "I can't deny that there's a potential for a problem, but if you ask me if I see a serious problem, I'd have to say no," he said.

Still, advocates point out that the potential for abuse has risen in recent years. Computers now give instantaneous access to records.

Mrs. Doory became interested last year when she was approached by a psychiatric social worker threatened by a patient with a history of violence. She asked the MVA to "block" her records, but was told that couldn't be done.

"I can't protect every possible access, but the MVA just seems a little more obvious," said the social worker, a 47-year-old city resident who asked to remain anonymous.

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