The Driver's Privacy Protection Act: Frequently Asked Questions

One of the most frequent questions I receive from people via e-mail is, “Can I contact my state motor vehicle agency to find out who currently owns a car I once owned?” The short, but difficult answer to that is, ‘Yes, you can, but even if you are given the contact information, you can’t do anything with it, unless you have a valid reason.” Why? Because motor vehicle records are tightly controlled by a federal law called the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act (DPPA), passed in 1994.

The DPPA was passed in reaction to the a series of abuses of drivers' personal information held by state motor vehicle agencies. The 1989 death of Hollywood actress Rebecca Schaeffer was a well-publicized example of such abuse. In that case, a private investigator, hired by an obsessed fan, was able to obtain Rebecca Schaeffer's address through her California motor vehicle record. The fan used her address information to stalk and, ultimately, to kill her. Other incidents cited by Congress included a ring of Iowa home robbers who targeted victims by writing down the license plates of expensive cars and obtaining home address information from the state's department of motor vehicles.

In 1999, Congress amended the law to give drivers additional privacy protections. The "Shelby amendment," which took affect June 1, 2000, changed the DPPA to require that states obtain a driver's express consent before releasing any personal information, regardless of whether the request is made for a particular individual's information or in bulk for marketing purposes.

The DPPA includes a list of 14 “permissible reasons” which allow state motor vehicle agencies to release private contact information on a person in question. The following is the full text of the DPPA, which lists these 14 reasons:

The Driver's Privacy Protection Act (1994)

U.S. Code> Title 18 > Part I > Chapter 123: Prohibition on release and use of certain personal information from State motor vehicle records

(a) In General.— A State department of motor vehicles, and any officer, employee, or contractor thereof, shall not knowingly disclose or otherwise make available to any person or entity:

(1) personal information, as defined in 18 U.S.C. 2725 (3), about any individual obtained by the department in connection with a motor vehicle record, except as provided in subsection (b) of this section; or

(2) highly restricted personal information, as defined in 18 U.S.C. 2725 (4), about any individual obtained by the department in connection with a motor vehicle record, without the express consent of the person to whom such information applies, except uses permitted in subsections (b)(1), (b)(4), (b)(6), and (b)(9): Provided, That subsection (a)(2) shall not in any way affect the use of organ donation information on an individual’s driver’s license or affect the administration of organ donation initiatives in the States.

(b) Permissible Uses.— Personal information referred to in subsection (a) shall be disclosed for use in connection with matters of motor vehicle or driver safety and theft, motor vehicle emissions, motor vehicle product alterations, recalls, or advisories, performance monitoring of motor vehicles and dealers by motor vehicle manufacturers, and removal of non-owner records from the original owner records of motor vehicle manufacturers to carry out the purposes of titles I and IV of the Anti Car Theft Act of 1992, the Automobile Information Disclosure Act (15 U.S.C. 1231 et seq.), the Clean Air Act (42 U.S.C. 7401 et seq.), and chapters 301, 305, and 321–331 of title 49, and, subject to subsection (a)(2), may be disclosed as follows:

(1) For use by any government agency, including any court or law enforcement agency, in carrying out its functions, or any private person or entity acting on behalf of a Federal, State, or local agency in carrying out its functions.

(2) For use in connection with matters of motor vehicle or driver safety and theft; motor vehicle emissions; motor vehicle product alterations, recalls, or advisories; performance monitoring of motor vehicles, motor vehicle parts and dealers; motor vehicle market research activities, including survey research; and removal of non-owner records from the original owner records of motor vehicle manufacturers.

(3) For use in the normal course of business by a legitimate business or its agents, employees, or contractors, but only—

(A) to verify the accuracy of personal information submitted by the individual to the business or its agents, employees, or contractors; and

(B) if such information as so submitted is not correct or is no longer correct, to obtain the correct information, but only for the purposes of preventing fraud by, pursuing legal remedies against, or recovering on a debt or security interest against, the individual.

(4) For use in connection with any civil, criminal, administrative, or arbitral proceeding in any Federal, State, or local court or agency or before any self-regulatory body, including the service of process, investigation in anticipation of litigation, and the execution or enforcement of judgments and orders, or pursuant to an order of a Federal, State, or local court.

(5) For use in research activities, and for use in producing statistical reports, so long as the personal information is not published, redisclosed, or used to contact individuals.

(6) For use by any insurer or insurance support organization, or by a self-insured entity, or its agents, employees, or contractors, in connection with claims investigation activities, antifraud activities, rating or underwriting.

(7) For use in providing notice to the owners of towed or impounded vehicles.

(8) For use by any licensed private investigative agency or licensed security service for any purpose permitted under this subsection.

(9) For use by an employer or its agent or insurer to obtain or verify information relating to a holder of a commercial driver’s license that is required under chapter 313 of title 49.

(10) For use in connection with the operation of private toll transportation facilities.

(11) For any other use in response to requests for individual motor vehicle records if the State has obtained the express consent of the person to whom such personal information pertains.

(12) For bulk distribution for surveys, marketing or solicitations if the State has obtained the express consent of the person to whom such personal information pertains.

(13) For use by any requester, if the requester demonstrates it has obtained the written consent of the individual to whom the information pertains.

(14) For any other use specifically authorized under the law of the State that holds the record, if such use is related to the operation of a motor vehicle or public safety. (c) Resale or Redisclosure.— An authorized recipient of personal information (except a recipient under subsection (b)(11) or (12)) may resell or redisclose the information only for a use permitted under subsection (b) (but not for uses under subsection (b)(11) or

(12). An authorized recipient under subsection (b)(11) may resell or redisclose personal information for any purpose. An authorized recipient under subsection (b)(12) may resell or redisclose personal information pursuant to subsection (b)(12). Any authorized recipient (except a recipient under subsection (b)(11)) that resells or rediscloses personal information covered by this chapter must keep for a period of 5 years records identifying each person or entity that receives information and the permitted purpose for which the information will be used and must make such records available to the motor vehicle department upon request.

(d) Waiver Procedures.— A State motor vehicle department may establish and carry out procedures under which the department or its agents, upon receiving a request for personal information that does not fall within one of the exceptions in subsection (b), may mail a copy of the request to the individual about whom the information was requested, informing such individual of the request, together with a statement to the effect that the information will not be released unless the individual waives such individual’s right to privacy under this section.

(e) Prohibition on Conditions.— No State may condition or burden in any way the issuance of an individual’s motor vehicle record as defined in 18 U.S.C. 2725 (1) to obtain express consent. Nothing in this paragraph shall be construed to prohibit a State from charging an administrative fee for issuance of a motor vehicle record.

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