The California Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the state may continue to require motorists to submit their fingerprints to obtain a driver's license--but that it may not pass on such data to other government agencies or private parties.
The court held unanimously that the thumb or fingerprint requirement, mandatory since 1982, did not in itself infringe on the state constitutional right to privacy and that the Department of Motor Vehicles can use the prints to authenticate the identity of license applicants.
But in a separate vote of 4 to 2, the justices said that by "indiscriminately" giving or selling fingerprint data to other agencies or the general public--including private investigation services--the DMV was violating state statutes restricting the disclosure of personal information obtained by the state.
According to state officials, fingerprint data from driver's license applications have been widely used by law enforcement agencies in criminal investigations and also by coroners and other authorities who lack other means to identify bodies.
The court's ruling appeared to leave the way clear for law agencies to obtain DMV-acquired fingerprints through the subpoena or warrant process, the officials said. Nor did it restrict the availability of other information--such as names and addresses--from license applications, they said.
Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird, in an opinion joined by Justices Allen E. Broussard, Cruz Reynoso and Joseph R. Grodin, said the unrestricted use of fingerprint data "flagrantly disregards" the purpose of the state confidentiality statutes.
"A fingerprint is a much more private matter than a name or address and its disclosure can lead to much greater intrusions on privacy than the simple disclosure of an individual's name," Bird wrote.
In an unusual separate concurring opinion, Bird warned at length of the potential for misuse of fingerprint data in the modern era.
"A fingerprint lifted from the scene of a political meeting or lovers' tryst can be fed into a computer and matched with its owner's identity," she said.
With current technology, she went on, a fingerprint file can provide both a way of identifying individuals against their will and a means of obtaining "a wealth of personal information" about them.
Justice Stanley Mosk, in a sharp dissent joined by Justice Malcolm M. Lucas, said he did not believe that the law requires DMV fingerprint data to remain confidential and that disclosure of such information had been invaluable in identifying victims of disasters.
Mosk criticized what he called Bird's "strained" interpretations of state statutes and her "exaggerated apprehensions" about the dissemination of fingerprint data.
Fingerprints "do not divulge the history, thoughts, habits, political views, activities or financial affairs of a person," as might an account of credit card purchases, bank statements or similar records, he said.
The case before the court involved a constitutional challenge to the fingerprint requirement by Christopher Ann Perkey, a Sacramento woman who was denied a license after she refused to submit to fingerprinting in 1982.
Perkey asked a trial court to order the DMV to grant her a license, saying that she was suffering a hardship because she was forced to rely on family and friends for transportation for herself and her children to work, stores and such personal activities as soccer games.
The trial court upheld the constitutionality of the law, as did the state Court of Appeal in Sacramento.
In Thursday's ruling, the justices concluded that the fingerprint requirement was a valid way for the DMV to guard against fraudulent applications and thus promote highway safety.
Bird noted that it was not unusual for people whose licenses have been revoked for reckless driving or driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol to apply for a new license using false identification.
Nor does fingerprinting alone infringe on the right to privacy, she said. California courts have previously upheld such requirements for pawnbrokers and bartenders, among others, she pointed out.
But the disclosure outside the DMV violated a provision of state law requiring that information about a "physical or mental condition" be kept confidential, Bird found.
A "reasonable interpretation" of that provision mandates confidentiality to that portion of an application that reveals the fingerprint, she said.
Justice Edward A. Panelli did not participate in the case.
The court's ruling proved disappointing to both sides in the dispute.
State Deputy Atty. Gen. Faith J. Geoghegan said the decision could hamper some criminal investigations where DMV fingerprint records might prove the only means of identification. "The use of such prints has been widespread by law enforcement," she said.
Neither the Los Angeles Police Department nor the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department had any comment to make Thursday on the high court's ruling. Spokesman for both said it was too soon to conclude what impact it would have on law enforcement agencies. Fred Okrand, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said that while he welcomed the limitation on disclosure of fingerprint data, he was dismayed that the court had not struck down the requirement itself as a violation of the right to privacy.
DMV Plans Action
The chief counsel to the DMV, Alan Mateer, denied that the department had provided fingerprint data "indiscriminately" but added that it would immediately review its procedures and revise them to meet the justices' mandate.
He noted that under the ruling it would be up to a trial court to issue an order setting detailed guidelines for implementation of the decision.
Mateer said that although he expects that private access to print data will be sharply restricted, it was likely that "something could be worked out" to ensure at least some availability of the information to law enforcement. He added that official access to the data for the purposes of identifying bodies is likely to continue.