Privacy Issue in Parking Tickets, Full Circuit Says

     CHICAGO (CN) - Printing personal information on parking tickets may violate privacy rights and leave drivers vulnerable to stalkers or identity thieves, the full 7th Circuit ruled.
     Jason Senne filed suit over the practice after he received a $20 parking ticket in 2010 for illegally parking his car overnight in the Chicago suburb of Palatine, Ill.
     Senne's name, address, driver's license number, date of birth, height and weight appeared on the ticket, which had been placed on his windshield in full public view.
     The ticket also doubled as an envelope to send payment of the fine, which would have displayed his personal information the exterior of the envelope when mailed.
     Senne's complaint alleged that Palatine's ticketing policy illegally disclosed personal information, in violation of the Driver's Privacy Protection Act (DPPA).
     But a federal judge found that an exception for law enforcement protected the village's actions, and a divided three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit panel affirmed last year.
     After to agreeing to rehear the case en banc, however, the full federal appeals court decided Monday that "that the parking ticket at issue here did constitute a disclosure regulated by the DPPA."
     Judge Kenneth Ripple, who authored an impassioned dissent against the original panel decision last year, wrote for a seven-judge majority this time.
     "The action alleged here, placing the information on the windshield of the vehicle in plain view on a public way, is certainly sufficient to come within the activity regulated by the statute regardless of whether another person viewed the information or whether law enforcement intended it to be viewed only by Mr. Senne himself," Ripple wrote. "The real effect of the placement of the ticket was to make available Mr. Senne's motor vehicle record to any passer-by. This sort of publication is certainly forbidden by the statute."
     Congress enacted the DPPA after actress Rebecca Schaeffer was killed by a stalker who found her home address through the California Department of Motor Vehicles.
     "Specifically, it is clear that safety and security concerns associated with excessive disclosures of personal information held by the state in motor vehicle records were the primary issue to be remedied by the legislation," Ripple wrote.
     While the act provides an exception for law-enforcement uses, "it is not at all clear that either of the statutory exceptions at issue implicated the release of all of this information," the majority added. "With respect to some of that information, it is difficult to conceive, even on a theoretical level, how such information could play a role in the excepted law enforcement purposes."
     Rather, the release of confidential information posed a threat to residents, according to the decision.
     "For example, an individual seeking to stalk or rape can go down a street where overnight parking is banned and collect the home address and personal information of women whose vehicles have been tagged," Ripple wrote. "He can ascertain the name, exact address including the apartment number and even other information such as sex, age, height and weight pertinent to his nefarious intent."
     Personal information is also an easy target for identity thieves, the opinion states.
     "With these principles in mind, we hold that the village's placement of protected personal information in view of the public constituted a disclosure regulated by the statute, regardless of whether Mr. Senne can establish that anyone actually viewed it," Ripple wrote.
     Judge Richard Posner balked at the reversal in a solo dissent.
     "Stalkers are not the only invaders of privacy, but who are the non-stalkers who peek at tickets on windshields and write down the information they find there?" he wrote. "Are there any such? Is it wise to dislocate a statute in order to solve a problem that so far as any one knows or can guess has never arisen and will never arise?"
     The majority has opened the field to frivolous class actions filed by "scofflaws," the seven-page dissent states.
     "From now until the statute is amended (unless today's decision is reversed by the Supreme Court first), only a sucker would park legally in the village of Palatine," Posner wrote.
     Three other justices echoed that sentiment in another dissent, which Posner also joined.
     "By calling on judges to ban seemingly unnecessary disclosures, the majority makes the statute less straightforward, less predictable, and more costly to administer (due to the litigation expenses associated with determining the propriety or necessity of each disclosure)," according to the dissent authored by Judge Joel Flaum (parentheses in original).
     Noting that the majority's interpretation of the statute exposes Palatine to a potential $80 million penalty, Flaum said that "it is not our responsibility to evaluate the two approaches and determine which constitutes better policy; rather, our responsibility is to determine which approach Congress incorporated into the DPPA."
     Flaum said that Congress did not pass the DPPA to prevent risks "such as a stalker stumbling upon a parking citation containing information about his or her target, or a miscreant selecting a target based on the information provided in a citation."
     "Rather than evincing the intent to guard against all imaginable dangers, the legislative history emphasizes Congress's intent to prevent the specific danger that arises when individuals are able to obtain personal information upon request from state motor vehicle records," Flaum wrote (emphasis in original).