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Monday, February 9, 2015

Newspaper Violated Driver's Privacy Protection Act in Publishing Personal Information of Police Officers

Federal law prohibits individuals from obtaining or disclosing certain personal information from a motor vehicle record.  That law is called the Driver's Privacy Protection Act (DPPA).  5 Chicago police officers sued the Sun-Times Media after the newspaper published an article that included information about the officers obtained from the Secretary of State's drivers' license database in violation of the DPPA.  The Sun-Times moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing (1) the information was not "personal information" under the DPPA and (2) that the statute violates the First Amendment rights to free speech and freedom of the press.

The case made its way to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which rejected the Sun-Times' arguments, finding that (1) the information published by the Sun-Times did fall within the DPPA and (2) the Sun-Times has no constitutional right to obtain or publish unlawfully obtained information.  Dahlstrom v. Sun-Times Media (7th Cir. Feb. 6, 2015).

The case involved a homicide investigation against former Mayor Daley's nephew.  The police had put together an eyewitness lineup of  the Mayor's nephew and five police officers (used as "filler"). When the eyewitness failed to positively identify the suspect, the police department closed the investigation.  The Sun-Times published a series of articles criticizing the police department's handling of the investigation, and questioned the legitimacy of the lineup.   In one of those articles, the Sun-Times published the birth dates, height, weight, hair color, and eye color of the officers.  

The DPPA makes it unlawful to knowingly obtain or disclose personal information from a motor vehicle record.  The Sun-Times admitted that they obtained the officers' information from the motor vehicle records maintained by the Secretary of State but disputed that the information fell within the "personal information" definition under the Act.  The Seventh Circuit interpreted the definition broadly to include any information that was "identifying" - age, height, weight, hair color, and eye color all fell within that category of information.  Disclosure of that type of personal information could negatively affect the personal safety and privacy of licensed drivers, according to the opinion. The court also acknowledged its previous decision in Senne v. Village of Palatine, where it held that a police departments' disclosure of personal information on parking tickets violated the DPPA. 

With respect to the First Amendment argument, the court concluded that the Sun-Times has not alleged any First Amendment injury.  The court found "no constitutional right to have access to particular government information" and that "peering into public records is not part of the freedom of speech."  The court also noted that the DPPA does not prohibit the Sun-Times from publishing this same information, so long as it is obtained by lawful means.  

Post Authored by Julie Tappendorf


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