The U.S. Supreme Court will decide if it will hear arguments on whether a town’s use of personal identifying information on parking tickets is in violation of federal law.
The justices considered the case of Village of Palatine v. Senne in January and are expected to announce soon if they will take it for review.
At stake is whether towns can issue parking tickets that include the violator’s name, address and other personal information. The dispute began when Illinois resident Jason Senne found a ticket on his windshield while parked in the Village of Palatine that displayed his name, address, driver’s license number, date of birth, sex, height and weight — information that anyone passing by the car could have copied off the ticket if they chose. Senne then filed a class action seeking “$2,500 in damages for each of the tens of thousands of parking tickets [the village] issued over a four-year period.”
The lawsuit alleges that the tickets violate the federal Driver’s Privacy Protection Act, which sharply limits how personal information in a motor vehicle record can be disclosed. If the suit proceeds, the Village could be on the hook for more than $80 million in damages.
The law does carve out a number of exceptions for when a person’s motor vehicle record can be used, most broadly for “legitimate government agency functions,” as well as activities related to insurance, law enforcement and other purposes related to motor vehicle or public safety.
Palatine argued that their tickets fall under the legitimate use exception, and a federal judge agreed. However, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the tickets did in fact disclose more information than is necessary to process them. Now SCOTUS has a crack at making the final decision, if it chooses to take up the case.
A brief in the case noted that there were no other known lawsuits involving municipalities that printed excessive information on tickets.
Parkers at Risk
Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa co-sponsored the DPPA in 1994 after hearing of a constituent who was threatened via mail after visiting a women’s health clinic. Anti-abortion activists obtained her personal information by looking up her vehicle in public transportation records.
“This real life example highlights why Palatine’s policies are so dangerous,” the Senne brief says. “It would not be a stretch to imagine the consequences of getting a parking ticket in Palatine and having a venomous group stalk that person because they happened to park in the wrong place like close to an abortion clinic, mosque, church or temple.”
The law is useful to protect people’s safety as well as staving off unwanted marketing solicitations. “You don’t want people to have access to everything the Department of Motor Vehicles has about you,” says Lawrence Berezin, a retired plaintiff attorney who runs the New York Parking Ticket website. “There are legitimate uses that it can be put to. But if you go beyond, you’re going to face a class action.”
Berezin notes that tickets in New York City, for example, only contain information about the car itself, not the owner. If a driver fails to pay, courts can use the vehicle information to track him down, suspend his license or issue a warrant.
“There are so many tools available to punish a delinquent parker,” the attorney says. “Why do you have to publish the whole address? It’s absurd.”
Berezin wrote about another DPPA case in front of the high court on his personal blog, in which attorneys used Freedom of Information Act requests to obtain addresses of people who had bought certain cars in order to query them about joining a class action lawsuit.
Some of the car owners took exception to being tracked down through public vehicle records and sued the attorneys. The Supreme Court heard arguments in January in Maracich v. Spears and will rule on whether the attorneys’ actions fell within a litigation exception in the law.
The court’s decisions on the DPPA will help clarify where the line falls between permitted uses of information and privacy violations. “Where does the right of privacy stop?” Berezin says. “You don’t want to put this person at risk because he got a parking ticket.”