Privacy of MVA records weighed Bills in Md. legislature would pre-empt more restrictive federal law

February 08, 1997|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

With a federal deadline looming, the General Assembly is wrestling with the touchy question of just how private an individual's Motor Vehicle Administration records should be.

Bills in the Maryland House of Delegates and the state Senate spell out conditions under which the MVA would be allowed to disclose an individual's address, phone number, Social Security number and other personal information, such as weight.

That information has traditionally been freely available as a matter of public record. Among the avid users of the data have been lenders, insurers, telemarketers, direct-mail advertisers and newspaper reporters.

The bills, sponsored by Sen. Brian E. Frosh and Del. Nancy K. Kopp, both Montgomery County Democrats, have been crafted to pre-empt an even more restrictive federal law that would otherwise take effect in Maryland on Sept. 13. That law, which would prohibit access to the information in most cases, allows states to write their own rules instead of having the federal ban imposed on them.

The proposed Maryland legislation spells out exceptions that would allow law enforcement agencies, insurers, licensed private detectives and lenders seeking to recover a debt to have access. The records would also be open for the purpose of issuing a motor vehicle recall.

Telemarketers and direct-mail advertisers would apparently be left out.

At a recent hearing of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, a representative of the telemarketers and direct mailers pleaded for amendments that would preserve their access to the information.

"If you want your commerce, you want people to have an opportunity to reach you," said Paul T. McHenry, testifying on behalf of the Direct Marketing Association.

Senators seemed skeptical of that argument.

"Most people view that as an invasion of privacy," Frosh said.

The federal law, and the state legislation in its current form, could throw a roadblock in the way of reporters, who now have free access to the information.

James J. Doyle, a lobbyist for the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association, said he has suggested an amendment that would preserve reporters' access to information on individuals who do not specifically request privacy when they apply for or renew licenses.

Representatives of the banking and retail industries said they preferred the language in last year's bill, which would have provided greater access to the records. That bill passed the Senate but died in a House committee.

John Bowers, representing the Maryland Bankers Association, said the MVA records are to vehicles what the courthouse is to land records.

"It is a repository of public information, and the public should not be denied access to it," he said.

But Frosh said he has concerns about some of the ways the information is used -- particularly the sale of computer-generated lists by the MVA. For example, he said, anyone who calls the MVA can now purchase a list of everybody who lives in Baltimore and owns a Mercedes-Benz.

"Corrections officers say they've been harassed by former inmates who got their names through the MVA," he said.

The federal effort to restrict access to drivers' personal information was driven by several highly publicized incidents involving women who were stalked by men who got personal information about them through state motor vehicle agencies.

The best-known case was that of actress Rebecca Schaeffer, who was slain in 1989 by an obsessed male fan who stalked her after getting her address through California driving records.

"The challenge is to allow the access to the information in a way that protects the privacy of an individual but permits the appropriate uses that serve commerce and society in general," Frosh said.

Pub Date: 2/08/97

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