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Drivers Privacy Protection Act – 18 U.S. Code § 2721

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | Dec 12, 2023

Let's review the prohibition on releasing and using certain personal information from state motor vehicle records law defined under Title 18 U.S. Code 2721.

When someone seeks a driver's license or registers a vehicle at their local Department of Motor Vehicles, they must provide personally identifiable information, such as their photo image, social security number, etc. 

Drivers Privacy Protection Act – 18 U.S. Code § 2721

The government has a legal obligation to protect this information from misuse. These rules are laid out specifically in Title 18 U.S. Code Section 2721 (the Drivers Privacy Protection Act or DPPA). Thus, when an officer or agent of a DMV handles this incorrectly, it is considered a federal offense and may be punishable by fines.

The DPPA was originally enacted in 1994 to protect the privacy of personal information assembled by the State Department of Motor Vehicles (DMVs). It prohibits the release or use by any DMV (officer, employee, contractor) of personal information about an individual obtained by the department in connection with a motor vehicle record. 

It imposes penalties for violations and makes violators liable for a civil action to the individual to whom the released information pertains. 

The latest amendment to the DPPA requires states to get permission from people before their personal motor vehicle records may be sold or released to third-party marketers. The DPPA was passed in reaction to the series of abuses of drivers' personal information held by the government.

What Does the Law Say?

18 U.S.C. 2721 is a law that specifically prohibits any DMV, or any "officer, employee, or contractor" of the DMV, from sharing or misusing certain personal information obtained "in connection with state motor vehicle records," except in manners permissible by law. 

18 U.S. Code 2721 Prohibition on release of personal information

Section 2721 prohibition on release and use of certain personal information from State motor vehicle records says, “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.”

This law aims to protect people's privacy, ensuring their personal data isn't accessed without permission. For purposes of this law, protected information includes any/all personally identifiable information about a person, including:

  • Name and address,
  • Photograph,
  • Phone number,
  • Social Security Number,
  • Driver's License Number,
  • Health, medical, or disability information

18 U.S. Code Chapter 123 has some related federal laws, including the following:

  • 18 U.S.C 2722 – Additional unlawful acts,
  • 18 U.S.C. 2723 – Penalties,
  • 18 U.S.C. 2724 – Civil action,
  • 18 U.S.C. 2725 – Definitions.

What Is Permissible Use of Personal Information? 

As with most rules, some exceptions allow DMV personnel to disclose motorists' personal information in certain uses. In the case of U.S.C. 2721, the list of permissible uses is long. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Legal Proceedings: Personal information may be disclosed 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.
  • Motor Vehicle Product Alterations: The DMV is permitted to disclose an individual's personal information for motor vehicle product alterations, recalls, or advisories related to the vehicle's performance and safety.
  • Towed or Impounded Vehicles: If your vehicle has been towed or impounded, the DMV may release the information so that you may be contacted regarding your vehicle.
  • Licensed Private Investigator: A licensed private investigator specifically retained by an attorney to assist in legal matters may access personal information about a motorist as long as it is relevant to their investigation.
  • Express Consent: The statute prohibits the disclosure of personal information without the express consent of the person to whom such information applies. This means that if an individual gives permission, their information can be disclosed. This express consent is sometimes explicitly stated via contract, permission form, application, or other written means.
  • Insurance Purposes: Personal information may be disclosed concerning an insurance claim investigation, anti-fraud activities, rating, or underwriting. This includes insurance companies responsible for offering automobile liability and physical damage coverage.
  • Research and Statistics: Personal information may be released to compile statistical data as long as the information is published, disclosed, or used to contact those individuals.
  • Employment Purposes: An employer may obtain a prospective employee's commercial licensure if that individual consents to such an inspection.

Section 2721(b) Permissible Uses says, “Personal information referred to in subsection (a) shall be disclosed for use in connection with matters of a 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.).” 

What Are the Penalties for Misuse Of DMV Information?

While violations of the DPPA constitute a federal criminal offense, the law does not assign prison time for violations of this law. Rather, a person charged with violating U.S.C. 2721 can be fined up to $5000 per violation and generate a criminal record. 

Furthermore, the federal government may penalize any DMV agency that is found to have a "policy or practice of substantial noncompliance" with these rules. The agency can be fined $5000 daily for every day of substantial noncompliance.

What Are the Common Defenses?

If you are charged with a DPPA violation, a federal criminal defense attorney may combat the charge using various defense strategies. Among the most common are:

  • Permissible Use: The information was permissible under the DPPA. This could include uses related to motor vehicle safety, legal proceedings, research activities, prevention of fraud, etc.
  • Consent: The individual whose information was disclosed had given explicit consent for using their personal information.
  • Lack of Knowledge: The DPPA violation requires that the person knowingly obtain or disclose personal information. Therefore, a defense may be built around the claim that the defendant did not knowingly violate the DPPA.
  • Proper Procedure: The defendant may claim that they followed the proper procedure for information disclosure as outlined in their policy, thereby defending against a DPPA violation claim.

You can contact our law firm for a case evaluation by phone or via the contact form. Eisner Gorin LLP is based in Los Angeles, California.

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About the Author

Dmitry Gorin

Dmitry Gorin is a licensed attorney, who has been involved in criminal trial work and pretrial litigation since 1994. Before becoming partner in Eisner Gorin LLP, Mr. Gorin was a Senior Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles Courts for more than ten years. As a criminal tri...

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