By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Supreme Court ruled on Monday that lawyers cannot gather personal information about drivers from state databases when seeking plaintiffs for potential lawsuits.
The court held in a narrow 5-4 vote that the federal Drivers Privacy Protection Act of 1994 does not allow lawyers to seek the information.
The case hinged on language in the law that allows access to the data for lawyers pursuing an "investigation in anticipation of litigation."
A group of drivers sued lawyers who had sought the personal information from the South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles. The lawyers, including the firm Lewis & Babcock LLP, were seeking to file a lawsuit on behalf of customers against car dealerships over alleged unlawful administrative fees.
In the majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy said that "an attorney's solicitation of clients" did not fit into the section of the law that refers to litigation.
What the law protected, he added, was the right of lawyers to seek information in ongoing cases in which they already represent someone.
The law "has a limited scope to permit the use of highly restricted personal information when it serves an integral purpose in a particular legal proceeding," Kennedy said.
The case is Maracich, et al v. Spears, et al, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 12-25.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Howard Goller and David Brunnstrom)