Legislation to prevent the personal information of people involved in car crashes from going public narrowly passed its first committee on Tuesday.
The measure (SB 1614), carried by Stuart Republican Rep. Gayle Harrell, would make indefinite the current 60-day public records exemption for the personal information of people involved in car crashes and who receive traffic tickets. Protecting that information is one way to cut down on identity theft, Harrell told the Senate Transportation Committee before the measure passed on a 4-3 vote. The hearing also featured pushback from press freedom advocates.
Personal identifying information from crashes and traffic tickets are currently exempt for 60 days, except in cases that meet exemptions outlined in the 1994 federal Driver Privacy Protection Act. Those include people involved in the crash, their lawyers, involved insurance agents, law enforcement and the media.
The bill would add the Department of Health and city traffic operations to the list of exempt parties. But when it comes to the media, it would narrow access to summary reports with limited information around the crash, those involved, the cars involved, the names of responding law enforcement officers and whether any arrests or traffic citations were issued.
People’s date of birth, driver’s license number and insurance policy number can go public after the 60-day protections expire.
“This is ripe for fraud,” Harrell said. “We see this happening. Identity theft is on a rise across the state of Florida.”
Reports highlight people having their identity stolen, bank accounts wiped and debts incurred using driver’s license and insurance policy numbers, she continued.
“That driver’s license number is a key to all kinds of things that you can fraudulently claim to be someone else with,” Harrel said.
Sam Morley, general counsel for the Florida Press Association, agreed sensitive personal information subject to potential abuse should be kept secret. However, he opposed the bill, arguing it would prevent citizens from being informed about what’s happening in their community. Additionally, he called the current approach balanced.
“We do think and hope that there are narrower ways to address any problems that might exist,” he said.
Virginia Hamrick, a staff attorney with the First Amendment Foundation, noted the new language would not compel law enforcement to hand summary reports over to the media.
Lantana Democratic Sen. Lori Berman told the committee she would be voting against the bill.
“It is a little broad,” Berman said. “Without the redacted traffic citation information, it’s harder to track tickets, and you can’t see if they’re being disproportionately issued in certain areas.”
The bill next heads to the Senate Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee, its second of three committee stops. The House version (HB 1121), sponsored by Macclenny Republican Rep. Chuck Brannan, awaits a hearing in its first committee.
Both versions of the measure would take effect July 1, if successful.