Drivers' records: public or private?

February 16, 1994

There's something peculiar about a bill when virtually everyone testifying in favor of it also insists on being exempted. It's a great idea, as long as they don't have to abide by it. The bill would sharply limit access to the records of the Motor Vehicle Administration, much of which are now generally open to anyone willing to pay a fee. As the bill is now drawn, the only ones who would be denied this access would be the public and the media.

At present anyone can obtain the name and address of a motor vehicle's owner simply by plunking down a $5 fee. Mass marketers and other businesses can buy lists of registered owners at bulk rates. Impetus for the bill came from people who feared being harassed by stalkers who saw them driving, then obtained their home addresses from the MVA. Or by abusive husbands who are trying to track down fearful wives or former wives who are hiding from them. Or correction officers who fear retaliation from released prisoners.

That is an emotionally appealing argument, but there don't seem to be a lot of examples of its happening. A couple of highly publicized incidents have helped propel a similar bill through the U.S. Senate without so much as a committee hearing.

Here is another collision between two undisputable rights. One is the public's right of access to the records of government agencies, within broad limits. The other is an individual's right to privacy about his or her personal affairs. Usually when rights like these appear to diverge, the courts apply a balancing test. Where is the greater threat to liberties, or where is justice best served under these circumstances? Since the right of access to public records is a foundation stone of representative government, there must be substantial evidence of the need to weaken it. We haven't seen it yet.

What's worse, the bills in the legislature are riddled with exemptions. Just about anyone with a legitimate need to see drivers' records could still do so -- except for the general public and the media. The victim of a hit-and-run driver armed with a license number would be barred from finding the vehicle's owner. But not the lawyers, insurance companies and other businesses who might seek similar information. Car dealers and mass marketers could still address their junk mail, but a neighborhood association couldn't get the names and addresses of people in their area.

Those supporting the sealing of MVA records need first to prove there is a real, not presumed, need for barring the public from them. Then they need to find a way of achieving their goal without favoring commercial interests over private rights.

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