SAN FRANCISCO — The state can continue to require applicants for drivers' licenses to give thumbprints for identification but cannot distribute the records to other government agencies or private parties, the state Supreme Court ruled today.
In a 4-2 decision by Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird, the court said disclosure of fingerprint records by the Department of Motor Vehicles for purposes unrelated to vehicle safety violates state privacy laws.
"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 said.
She said the record showed numerous instances in which "the DMV has sold its computerized fingerprint file--or access to it--to anyone who can afford to pay the fee." For example, she said, "sophisticated private investigation services" have had access to the file.
Valuable in Other Uses
But Justice Stanley Mosk, in a dissenting opinion, said fingerprint records "have proved invaluable" to agencies other than the DMV, such as coroners, for identifying dead people, and FBI for identifying victims of major disasters.
"Such uses of the fingerprint files serve the individual and his family as well as the public, and offend no reasonable interest in privacy," Mosk said in his dissent.
The court ruled unanimously that a 1982 state law requiring driver's license applicants to put a thumbprint or fingerprint on the application is a legitimate method to promote highway safety by reducing the number of fraudulent licenses, and does not violate the right of privacy.
The law had been challenged by a Sacramento woman, Christopher Ann Perkey, who refused to give a thumbprint when her license was up for renewal in 1982 and was denied a license.
Privacy Right Contended
Perkey, a licensed driver since 1959, contended the law violated her right to privacy by making her take part in a statewide system of identification unrelated to highway safety.
In July, 1984, the court ordered the DMV to give Perkey a license, without taking her thumbprint, while the case was pending.
In upholding the thumbprint requirement, Bird said that preventing fraudulent drivers' licenses was related to highway safety.
Fraudulent licenses are on the increase and are commonly sought by those whose licenses have been revoked because of reckless or drunk driving, Bird said. She said fingerprints were far more reliable as identification than photographs or signatures.