How to Look Up License Plate Numbers

By Teo Spengler ; Updated June 01, 2017
License word on vintage car plates

The federal Driver's Privacy Protection Act restricts states from giving out private information about a car owner to members of the public when looking up a vehicle license plate. Your state will not do a license plate number look-up unless you fit into one of the exceptions.

Limitations on License Plate Number Look-ups

If you are the victim of a hit-and-run accident and manage to jot down the plate number, you may want to find out how to look up a license plate number. Of course, a thief who see an expensive sports car might also hope to get the owner's address. So might a college student who likes the looks of the driver in the next lane. Or a crazed fan who intends to kidnap a celebrity.

That's why the federal government passed the Driver's Privacy Protection Act in 1993. It prohibits states from allowing their motor vehicle departments to hand out private owner information in license plate look-ups.

Of course, there are quite a few exceptions to the general prohibition, including law enforcement. A few of the other important exceptions include:

  • Government agencies can do license plate look-ups if necessary in their work.
  • Look-ups are possible for use in connection with "matters of motor vehicle or driver safety and theft."
  • Businesses can do look-ups in some cases.
  • Litigants can get the information in a court case.
  • Insurance companies can also access license plate numbers.

How to Look Up a License Plate Number

States each have their own systems for applying the Driver's Privacy Protection Act and providing access to those who have the right to obtain driver information from license plate look-ups. If you have a legitimate reason to find out personal information about a vehicle owner from a license plate look-up, find out and follow the procedure your DMV has set up.

If you were involved in a traffic accident and want to get the name and address of a vehicle's owner, it may be easier to work with the police or your insurer. Both law enforcement and insurance companies are permitted to do license plate look-ups.

It is illegal to claim that you are among the exceptions to the prohibitions of the Driver's Privacy Protection Act if that is not the case. You can be assessed penalties and also be sued for damages by the person whose privacy was violated.

About the Author

Living in France and Northern California, Teo Spengler is an attorney, novelist and writer and has published thousands of articles about travel, gardening, business and law. Spengler holds a Master of Arts in creative writing from San Francisco State University and a Juris Doctor from UC Berkeley. She is currently a candidate for a Master of Fine Arts in fiction.