If one driver’s car side-swipes another, he is supposed to stop and exchange insurance information. But if the other driver floors it and disappears in a cloud of exhaust, his car license plate number can identify him. The unique plate numbers attached to vehicles are issued by a particular state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) or similar agency and link to the car owner’s name and address.
While privacy laws prevent a government organization like the DMV from giving out personal information linked to a vehicle license number, this does not apply to law enforcement, and a few other exceptions apply. An individual also can go through a private, third-party website that compiles public information into a searchable database.
Auto License Plate Information
It seems that an automobile license plate database would be an easy, convenient way to track vehicle ownership since every state issues its own license plates, and each one is unique. However, federal law makes it illegal for the state to release this type of personal information. The idea is to prevent someone from tracking or harassing another person against her will.
The Driver's Privacy Protection Act does not apply across the board, of course. The very reason for vehicle license plates is to allow law enforcement to track errant drivers, people who don’t pay tolls, or those involved in crimes like bank heists or hit-and-run collisions. That means that the state and highway police will have access to this type of information through a private DMV database.
Obtaining License Information From the DMV
States release vehicle license information to law enforcement and for other valid purposes. Every state has different regulations as to what constitutes these purposes, authorizing release of information for specific reasons. Some also release the information to insurers working a claim, businesses verifying identity or agencies doing market research.
If an individual wants to discover the owner of a car with a particular license plate, she can visit her local DMV and ask about their rule for the release of information. If any seem to apply, she can easily request the information and have it sent to her electronically or by mail. Otherwise, she can locate it online for a fee.
Private Search Companies
Anyone running a quick search for companies providing vehicle license databases will find not one company, but many. Are these legal companies? Are they reliable?
There is nothing illegal about mining public information from public records, organizing and selling it. That is what most of the online search firm do: collect public information for vehicle license information, then sell it online by license number. Although the DMV is not permitted to release the information, it still is frequently released by the car owner when filing an insurance claim when parking at a hotel or registering for FasTrak or other license plate based-toll paying app.
Read More: How to Research License Plates
Companies to Use for Online Search
Whether online services are legitimate is another question, and some firms are more reputable than others. Someone seeking legitimate information might ask friends for recommendations, or try one of the companies that has been around for a while. Black’s Law Dictionary recommends People Public Records, Search Quarry or Vehicle Data Registry.
A legitimate firm will likely be able to provide a lot of information about the vehicle and the owner. Many of these firms will also provide other types of information, such as an individual’s background criminal and civil court records, marriage and divorce records, birth and death records, incarcerations, vital records and police records.
Most of the online search firms do not provide financial information like bank, credit card or social security number information. Most of them offer a variety of “membership” options, requiring at least a paid monthly membership to run a search.
Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.