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Fourth Circuit hears challenge to use of driver data for legal advertising

A three-judge panel appeared skeptical of claims that law firms cannot use driver’s license information in police accident reports to advertise legal services.

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — The Fourth Circuit heard arguments Tuesday over whether law firms are violating the privacy of North Carolina drivers by using their license information for advertising purposes. 

North Carolina drivers who are involved in a car accident or other traffic incidents can expect to be deluged with mail from attorneys offering to provide legal help. 

This common and widespread type of marketing by law firms may be irritating, but a group of North Carolina drivers say it's also illegal. 

In a lawsuit against dozens of law firms first filed in 2016, a group of drivers say the firms violated the Driver's Privacy Protection Act by obtaining their names and addresses from accident reports and using that information to advertise legal services. 

The DPPA is a federal act that prohibits the misuse of a driver’s information if that data has been collected from a “motor vehicle record.” 

The law firms argue they are protected under the First Amendment because the information didn’t come directly from Department of Motor Vehicle records. 

“The plaintiffs are asking this court to reject the statutory interpretation of virtually every other court in the country to consider the statute. They’re asking the court to contravene the position of the Department of Justice as to what the DPPA means. They’re asking this court to hold that the defendants violated federal law by obtaining and using public records that the government itself had already made public,” Matthew Nis Leerberg, an attorney with Fox Rothschild representing the law firms, told a three-judge panel Tuesday.

In a ruling last year, U.S. District Judge Loretta C. Biggs in Winston-Salem sided with the lawyers and granted summary judgment to multiple firms. She found that the DPPA “need not apply to every use of a name or address that may somehow be traced back to a state DMV in order for Congress’s important public policy goals to be advanced.” The drivers appealed to the Richmond, Virginia-based Fourth Circuit.

David Stradley, who represented the drivers during Tuesday's arguments, told the panel that the lower court's ruling "both defies the language that Congress used and the structure of the DPPA." He contends that the law covers information extracted from police reports because those reports include information from a driver’s license. 

U.S. Circuit Judge Harvie Wilkinson, a Ronald Reagan appointee, said this information has a “tenuous and indirect relationship with the DMV.”

Stradley disagreed, stating that license information is closely related to DMV records because the information made its way from a DMV database to a crash report to a spreadsheet compiled by the attorneys.

Wilkinson was joined on the panel by U.S. Circuit Judges Stephanie Thacker, a Barack Obama appointee, and Diana Gribbon Motz, appointed by Bill Clinton. 

The three judges repeatedly pushed back against Stradley’s arguments, which ended abruptly once his time was up.

“If we took your view, I'm wondering if we wouldn’t be overruling a host of state laws that provide that crash reports and driver's licenses are open for public inspection. And states do this to ensure public safety,” Wilkinson said.

The law firms' attorney agreed.

“In North Carolina, accident reports themselves are public records from the moment they’re created, and there’s a reason for that,” Leerberg argued. 

As an example, he said, “If the mayor was in a car accident, the public is entitled to know that, is entitled to pull that record and get those details. That's the public policy of North Carolina. Congress never intended those state laws to be supplanted.”

Leerberg said if the court ruled for the plaintiffs, “then our clients as members of the public are being punished by a civil-slash-criminal statute for obtaining and reading reports that the government itself chose to make public.”

The judges did not indicate when they would issue a ruling.

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Categories / Appeals, Civil Rights, Media

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