Federal law protecting drivers' privacy upheld

State had asked justices to overturn curb on disclosing information

January 13, 2000|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court, pausing in its sustained effort to curb Congress' power over the states, upheld yesterday a 6-year-old federal law that protects the privacy of information about drivers and car owners.

One day after striking down a federal law that protected state government employees from age bias and threatening a separate law to protect women against sexual violence, the court found no constitutional flaw with the Driver's Privacy Protection Act.

The law was prompted by the murder of actress Rebecca Schaeffer, who was killed in 1989 by a stalker who traced her address through driver's license information. The act was designed to bar states, unless the driver approves, from making public and selling personal information a driver lists on license or registration applications.

Women's rights groups have come to rely on the law to protect the privacy of women who use abortion clinics and of doctors and nurses who work there.

Because many states have made driver's license and registration records public, or sold the information contained in them, it is easy to trace a license plate back to those records and to find out a person's address and telephone number, and sometimes medical information.

In the case the court decided yesterday, South Carolina contended that the law intruded on states' independence of the federal government by requiring state officials to spend time and money to carry out the privacy guarantees.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, writing for the court, said the law regulates only what states do as owners of databases containing the drivers' and vehicle owners' information.

Congress, the chief justice said, was entitled to treat the information as a commercial item, used by insurers, manufacturers, direct-marketing companies and others to "contact drivers with customized solicitations."

The sale or release of the information "into the interstate stream of business is sufficient to support congressional regulation," the court concluded.

Though the court has gone to unusual lengths in other cases to insulate states from federal laws, it appeared to have little difficulty treating the driver's privacy law differently. Rehnquist used only four pages of discussion to explain why the law was valid.

In a second decision yesterday on federal law, the court ruled that a company that has been penalized for polluting waterways is not necessarily entitled to have that penalty nullified once it ceases the pollution. Such a fine, the court said, can be wiped out only if it is clear that there is no way the company could return to polluting -- for example, by closing the plant that was the source of the pollution.

The ruling gave environmental groups a new chance to persuade lower courts to reinstate a $405,800 penalty against Laidlaw Environmental Services Inc. for dumping mercury-containing wastewater from an incinerator into rivers near Roebuck, S.C.

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