The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently upheld the District Court’s judgment in favor of the Village of Palatine in Senne v. Village of Palatine. In Senne, a class of plaintiffs alleged that the Village of Palatine’s use of information on parking tickets placed upside down on a vehicle’s windshield constituted an impermissible disclosure of personal information in violation of the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act (DPPA). The information contained on the Village’s citations included the registered owner’s name, full address, driver’s license number, date of birth, sex, height, and weight.

The first time that the case came before the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, the Court ruled that the information on the Village’s ticket and the placement of the ticket on the windshield face down constituted a “disclosure” under the DPPA. The case was remanded to the District Court for a determination as to whether the information disclosed by the Village came with any of the permissible uses provided in the DPPA. The District Court held, based solely on the deposition testimony of the Village’s Police Chief, that the information disclosed on the citations was permissible, and Senne appealed to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals’ review consisted of examining the reasons for disclosure offered by the Village’s Police Chief. The DPPA allows for the disclosure of personal information for “use in connection with any civil, criminal, administrative, or arbitral proceeding in a Federal, State, or local court or agency or before any self-regulatory body, including the service of process, investigation in anticipation of litigation, and the execution or enforcement of judgments and orders, or pursuant to an order of a Federal, State, or local court.” Additionally, the DPPA allows for the disclosure of personal information for “use by any government agency, including any court or law enforcement agency, in carrying out its functions, or any private person or entity acting on behalf of a Federal, State, or local agency in carrying out its functions.”

The Village Police Chief testified that the information contained on a parking ticket increases the likelihood that a ticket will be paid because the driver or owner of the vehicle realizes that the police know the person’s identity and that they will have no difficulty in locating the driver or owner. The Police Chief also testified that the use of the personal information on the ticket alerts the driver to the information of the individual that will be responsible for payment of the ticket and this encourages the driver of the ticket to pay the ticket instead of the innocent owner. The Police Chief also stated that the information contained on the ticket can be used by command staff to determine if a ticket was issued in error to an out of town visitor thus warranting that the ticket be voided. Additionally, the personal information contained on the ticket allows drivers to use the ticket as a form of identification in the event that they are stopped by a police officer for a traffic violation and they do not have their driver’s license on them. Lastly, the Police Chief testified that placing personal information on the ticket encourages drivers to correct errors in the Village’s motor vehicle records such as the proper owner of the vehicle or the registered address for the vehicle.

The Court weighed the utility of the information contained on the ticket against the potential harm from disclosing the information. The Court stated that the plaintiff failed to show that anyone has read or taken any of the personal information on the Village’s tickets and used it. Additionally, the plaintiff did not demonstrate that information obtained from the ticket has been used for stalking or to facilitate any other type of crime such as identity theft or invasion of privacy. The Court went on further to state that if these harms had been demonstrated, or if the Police Chief’s reasoning had been successfully rebutted (no rebuttal was made by the plaintiff), or if the Village had made the information available over the internet or placed highly sensitive information such as a Social Security number on the ticket, that the risk of a nontrivial invasion of privacy would be much greater and could potentially outweigh the benefits to law enforcement from placing this information on the ticket.

The initial reading of the Court’s opinion in the Senne case gives the impression that the case condones the unfettered use of personal information on parking tickets by police officers. The opinion of the Court, however, is as much about the plaintiff’s failure to provide evidence to rebut the Police Chief’s testimony regarding the uses for personal information on the ticket and to demonstrate that the potential harm of the information outweighs its use. In our opinion, the Court did not foreclose the possibility that a plaintiff could demonstrate that, although the information provided on the ticket is in furtherance of a permissible use, the harm caused by the information outweighs its use. As a result, it is advisable that the information disclosed on a parking ticket be absolutely necessary to further a municipality’s enforcement of parking regulations. To that end, it is clear that the inclusion of the owner’s name and the year, make, model and registration information for the vehicle is necessary for the issuance of a valid citation. Information such as the owners’ height, weight, address, and driver’s license number could be considered unnecessary for the issuance of a parking ticket and could support a claim under the DPPA.

Please see our recent article addressing the application of the DPPA to Freedom of Information Act requests.

Kevin A. Chrzanowski

Author: Kevin A. Chrzanowski