Privacy law helps fight domestic violence, too

October 07, 1997


Staff Writer

Federal and state legislation limiting access to driver and vehicle records is a positive step in combating domestic violence, stalking and harassment, say those who work with victims in the Tri-State area.

"It's not just a privacy issue, it's a safety issue with the populations we serve," said Vicki Sadehvandi, executive director of Citizens Assisting and Sheltering the Abused (CASA) in Hagerstown.

New laws have gone into effect in each state to either automatically close those records to the general public and commercial use or give residents the option to close them, say state motor vehicle officials.


Maryland's open access to driver and vehicle records has proven a convenient tool for abusers trying to track down their victims, Sadehvandi said.

Usually, it's a matter of an abuser using Motor Vehicle Administration (MVA) records to track down a partner who has left them, she said.

But Sadehvandi said she knows of at least one case in Washington County in which a stalker used MVA records to find out the address of a coworker and victimize her.

Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia took different approaches in complying with the federal Driver Privacy Protection Act, which became effective Sept. 13.

Maryland's approach reflects its 54-year tradition of open access to motor vehicle records, MVA spokesman Richard Scher said.

As in the past, it's up to Maryland residents to request greater confidentiality for their driver and vehicle information, Scher said.

However, the state has made it much easier to request privacy, he said.

Residents can do it 24 hours a day by telephone or by submitting a Maryland Record Restriction form available at any MVA office, the MVA home page or by fax, Scher said.

The toll-free phone line is 1-888-682-3772.

They have two options: to close their records to the general public but keep them available to mass marketers or to close them to both the general public and marketers, Scher said.

Either way, certain groups outlined in the federal law - including courts, law enforcement agencies, government entities and insurance companies - still will have access to the information, he said.

West Virginians don't have to do anything if they don't mind their names being sold for commercial purposes, said Charley Dunn, a lawyer for the West Virginia Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV).

The state has greatly limited access to its driver's license and vehicle ownership records, Dunn said.

Before the state's new privacy law went into effect Sept. 1, anyone who had an interest could get basic driver and vehicle information, he said.

Now, only the 10 federally exempted groups and mass marketers can get that information, Dunn said.

To comply with the federal law, the state has given residents the option of closing their records to mass marketers, he said.

They can do that by filling out a form available through any DMV office, Dunn said.

Residents have to request confidentiality for each of three different databases: motor vehicles and boats, driver's licenses and handicapped services, said DMV spokesman Lacy Morgan.

So far, about 10,000 West Virginia residents have "opted out" of at least one of the three systems, Morgan said.

Pennsylvania started out with more restricted access to its driver and vehicle records than Maryland and West Virginia had, said Teresa O'Neal, manager for the Pennsylvania Bureau of Driver Licensing.

All vehicle and some limited driver information could be purchased only for a "legitimate business need" - like an insurance company checking a driver record or an employer verifying information - without a release by the owner or driver, O'Neal said.

A new state law restricts what's considered a "legitimate business need" to the 10 federally exempted groups, she said.

It also requires either the owner or driver release the information or that the requester complete a notarized form outlining the intended use of the information, O'Neal said.

Pennsylvania didn't have to do anything to comply with the part of the federal law addressing privacy for commercial purposes because the state has never allowed the information to be used that way, she said.

Restricting access to motor vehicle records isn't a cure-all for victims trying to escape abusers, but it's definitely a step in the right direction, said Lisa Johnson, a legal advocate for the Women in Need program in Chambersburg, Pa.

"I think that's going to be one less route for (abusers) to take, and I think it's going to give (victims) some piece of mind," Johnson said.

When it comes to tracking down a partner, abusers can be very inventive, she said.

"They take a lot of time and lot of effort into finding you," Johnson said.

The change in Maryland law is good new for abuse victims, who in the past faced a fairly complicated process to close their motor vehicle records, said Kimberlee Scott, a community outreach specialist at Heartly House in Frederick, Md.

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