January 14, 2003 - Court Approves Secrecy for Accident Data
WASHINGTON, Jan 14, 2003 -- The Supreme Court Tuesday made it harder for the public to get state accident records for dangerous intersections and highways.
The justices ruled unanimously that Congress has the power keep such data confidential.
The information being protected from the public is compiled by states when they want federal help to improve traffic safety.
The federal Hazard Elimination Program provides state and local governments with funding to improve dangerous roads and intersections.
To be eligible for the funding, states must make an evaluation of their public roads. At the same time, however, the states are leery about making such evaluations public.
The data, of course, could be used in lawsuits against state or local governments for failing to do something about hazardous road conditions earlier.
In 1987, Congress amended the law to say that information "compiled" for the hazardous roads program could not be used in any state or federal court.
In 1991, Congress made the prohibition specifically applicable to pre-trial "discovery" -- that phase before a civil trial when each side must disclose what evidence it has to the other -- and in 1995 added the words "or collected" after the word "compiled."
In the case reviewed by the Supreme Court, Pierce County, Wash., applied for federal highway safety improvement funds in May 1995 to improve an intersection, supporting its application with data from accident reports, collision diagrams and other material required by federal law.
Though it was turned down, the county again applied for funding the next year to improve the intersection.
Meanwhile, while the second application was pending, a pickup driven by Clementina Guillen-Allejandre ran a stop sign at the intersection, colliding with another vehicle, according to the county. The woman was killed and her two daughters and two nieces were injured.
The woman's husband subsequently filed a personal injury lawsuit against the county, asking a state judge to compel disclosure of the intersection's accident history, as required by state law. When the trial judge ordered disclosure, the county appealed.
While that appeal was pending, the husband and his brother-in-law filed another suit on behalf of the injured daughters and nieces, again seeking disclosure of the intersection's accident history. A trial judge again ordered disclosure, and the county again appealed.
Eventually, the Washington Supreme Court conceded that federal law protects the confidentiality of the information collected, and that Congress clearly meant federal law to pre-empt state law.
However, the Washington court ruled that private parties can assert "state's rights" in trying to have the information disclosed, and that the federal law protecting against disclosure violates the 10th Amendment.
The 10th Amendment, the last in the Bill of Rights, says all powers not given to Congress by the Constitution are reserved for the states and the people.
Early last year, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor blocked the Washington Supreme Court ruling until the Supreme Court of the United States decided whether it wanted to hear the case. The justices heard argument on Nov. 4.
Writing for the full court Tuesday, Justice Clarence Thomas cited the commerce clause of the Constitution, which gives Congress the authority to regulate interstate commerce.
The federal law protecting the confidentiality of highway statistics and its subsequent amendment, "can be viewed as legislation aimed a improving safety in the channels of commerce and increasing protection for the instrumentalities of interstate commerce," Thomas said.
"As such, they fall within Congress's commerce clause power."
The U.S. Supreme Court decision reverses the Washington Supreme Court ruling, and sends the case back down for a new ruling based upon the high court's opinion.
(No. 01-1229, Pierce County vs. Guillen etc.)
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