When someone wants to look up a license plate number in a state, they need to make a specific type of public records request. This requires completing the right form and submitting it to the appropriate state agency. In order to find out which state agency the requester should contact, they should identify the department or division of the state that deals with motor vehicles and driver records. There is typically a fee for a license plate lookup request; the amount of the fee varies by state.
In some situations, a requester may be able to search records in person at the state office for no fee. When engaging in a search, the requester must abide by state and federal laws regarding driver privacy. Although there are multiple commercial websites that offer license plate look-up services, the information these sites share may not be accurate or verified. Also, the information on such sites may come from sources that are out of date or are sharing driver records in violation of state and federal laws.
Driver’s Privacy Protection Act
The Driver’s Privacy Protection Act (DPPA) is a set of federal laws that prohibit a state department of motor vehicles from sharing personal information about any individual that is obtained by the department in connection with a motor vehicle record. There are many exceptions to the general rule, such as a state Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) may provide such information to a government agency so the agency can carry out its functions. The DMV can also provide driver information for use in providing notice to the owners of towed or impounded vehicles, for use by a licensed private investigator, and for use by the requester, so long as the requester has obtained the written consent of the individual to whom the information pertains.
What Is Personal Information?
The DPPA does not restrict providing information regarding traffic accidents, traffic violations or the status of a party’s driver’s license, but does not allow the Department of Motor Vehicles to share most other personal information even if the requester has a DPPA permissible use. That includes photographs, Social Security numbers, telephone numbers, medical information or disability information. Such information is only available via a subpoena signed by a state or federal judge.
State laws, such as the California Information Practices Act (IPA), tend to go further than the DPPA. The California IPA protects information that identifies or describes an individual, such as the physical description of a driver, the driver’s education, personal financial matters and employment history. In some cases, a state DMV may not collect or retain the type of personal information for which a requester may be searching.
Pennsylvania’s Approach to Requests
For an example of how a state handles driver information requests, Pennsylvania will not process a request for a driver’s name and other information simply based on providing a tag number. Pennsylvania requires that a legitimate request include the vehicle’s title number or vehicle identification number (VIN). A person who wants to obtain information like this from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation must complete form DL-135, Request for Vehicle Information.
Pennsylvania explains that the requesting party is required to share their identity and address, and to keep the information they receive confidential. In addition, they can only use the information they receive for the sole purpose as stated on their request form. There is an $11 fee to make a request.
Types of Public Records
A state has many different types of records that relate to a license plate search. For example, the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) can provide a three-year, nonemployment driving record; a three-year employment driving record; driver license information; an open-ended nonemployment driving record; a certified court print, which may contain over five years of record information; a certified court print with CDL medical certification information, which may include more than five years of record information; a vehicle record print; a vehicle title history; previous owner information; an insurance information search; and certification.
The costs of such records range from $1.00 for certification to $22.50 for a vehicle title history. The requester may want to know only the name and insurer of another party. Yet the requester needs to ask their state DMV to provide the information they want in a format that the state chooses to provide.
What a Record May Contain
An individual’s driving record should contain their name, sex, address, driver’s license number, classification of their license, such as whether they have a standard or commercial driver’s license, the status of their license, such as whether their license is suspended or revoked, and the expiration date of their license. The driving record should also show the number of points, DUIs, suspensions and revocations associated with that individual. The record should further show their traffic violations, convictions and accidents.
Penalties for Violating Protection Laws
There are state and federal penalties for violating driver privacy protection laws. State laws relating to driver privacy vary as to what constitutes a violation and what penalties a defendant may suffer. Violations of driver privacy in California are governed by California Vehicle Code Section 1808.45, which makes it a misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail and a fine up to $5,000.
The federal DPPA, which provides remedies through a civil action in a United States district court, states a party may recover actual damages not less than $2,500, reasonable attorneys’ fees and other litigation costs, and preliminary and equitable relief as the court determines to be appropriate. An individual can be found to have violated both state and federal laws for committing the same offense.
Bad Driving Records for Lawsuits
One of the reasons the victim of a car accident may want to look up license plate information belonging to another party is to see if that person has a poor driving record. This type of information can be useful in a lawsuit to suggest the other party was at fault. Information that could be helpful includes the number of speeding tickets the other party got in the last few years; such information shows the other party’s tendency to speed. The victim may also want to know the other party’s insurance claim history to see if they have been involved in numerous auto accidents in the past few years. Such information may be used to show that the defendant is negligent or reckless.
Requests for Police Reports
A party can request a police report related to an automobile accident from the law enforcement agency that came to the scene of the accident. The requester may be able to submit a request for a police report in a Request for Information form. Oregon asks that the requester share the date of the accident and the county in which the accident took place; in Oregon, the local DMV cannot locate the report by police report number.
Requests for Accident Records
A driver license record search may not turn up an accident report, as Idaho specifically states on its website for driver license record searches. Idaho provides an alternative service for looking up accident records, which it calls “crash reports.” A requester will need their law enforcement agency case ID number and must pay a $9 report fee. It takes a few weeks for a new report to become available online, and can take longer if the local police agency involved in the incident takes time to provide the documents.
Obtaining Information by Subpoena
A requester who wants information associated with a license plate number for a lawsuit may request documents from an agency before their hearing. They can also subpoena records from an agency to be produced at the hearing. When an officer of an agency brings relevant records to a hearing, they are required to certify that the records have not been altered.
Requesting Records in Bulk
An individual who wants to request multiple driver or vehicle records should contact the specific office at the DMV that deals with bulk requests. For example, in California, a requester who wants more than 15 records at once should contact the DMV Materials Management Section. Examples of permissible uses of bulk records under the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act include the gathering of driver information from bulk records for surveys and for use by insurers.
Businesses That Request Driving Records
It is permissible under state and federal laws for a business to request the driving record of a customer, employee or job applicant. In California, the Request for Record Information form states a permissible use includes “use by a legitimate business...to verify the accuracy of personal information submitted by the individual for the purposes of preventing fraud by...the individual.” This means that when an applicant provides information relating to a purchase, on a job application or in a resume, the employer can obtain the driving record of the candidate to make sure the person is telling the truth. An employer also can request information relating to a holder of a commercial driver’s license that is required under the federal Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Act.
Notify Law Enforcement
A person does not need to determine who is driving the vehicle to report a bad driver. They should contact the appropriate law enforcement agency and provide the officer answering the phone with the other party’s license plate number. When the other driver is involved in an emergency, the reporting party should call 911. If the offending driver is on city roads, the reporting party should call the city’s police department. If the driver is on rural or county roads, the reporting party should call the sheriff’s office for the county. If the driver is on the highway, the reporting party should call the state highway patrol.
Boat License Plates
A person who wants to look up the registration or title number of a boat should determine the appropriate state agency to which they should submit a request. This differs between states. In California, the appropriate agency is the California DMV. In Pennsylvania, the appropriate agency is the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. In Texas, the appropriate agency is the Texas Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Washington has a department of licensing, which allows a qualifying party to search by VIN or license plate number for an automobile, boat hull ID number or boat state registration number for a vessel or registered owner name for either an automobile or a vessel.
Correcting Information in a Record
If the person wants to correct inaccurate information in their driving record, they will need to submit the appropriate form to the state DMV. The individual can also contact the court in which they were convicted of a traffic violation or offense. They may need to complete a driver license record correction request for traffic violations or convictions and a traffic accident record correction request for traffic accident information only.
- Pennsylvania Department of Motor Vehicles: Public Records Frequently Asked Questions
- Pennsylvania Department of Transportation: DL-135, Request for Vehicle Information
- Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission: Boat Registration and Titling FAQs
- Washington State Department of Licensing: Contracted Plate Search
- Govinfo: Driver's Privacy Protection Act, 18 U.S.C. 2721
- Texas Department of Fish and Wildlife: Boat/Motor Online Transactions
- Idaho Transportation Department: Driver's License Record Search
- Oregon Department of Transportation: Request for Information, DMV Form 7122
- Idaho Transportation Department: ITD Forms, Crash Reports
- California Department of Motor Vehicles: Subpoenas for Hearings
- California DMV: Vehicle or Driver Record Requests
- California DMV: INF 70
- New York Department of Motor Vehicles: Driver's Privacy Protection Act
- California Highway Patrol: Notify the CHP
- California Department of Motor Vehicles: Records and Types of Information
- California Department of Motor Vehicles: Privacy and Security
- Write down the license plate number of the vehicle you want to search as soon as you see it. Waiting to write the plate number down can cause you to forget the exact plate number and thus can lead you to search for the wrong vehicle and person.
Jessica Zimmer is a journalist and attorney based in northern California. She has practiced in a wide variety of fields, including criminal defense, property law, immigration, employment law, and family law.