Youthful Driver Decal Sticks

Trautmann v. Christie, 418 N.J. Super. 559 (App. Div. 2011).   In 2009, the Legislature passed a law that required drivers who have learner’s permits or probationary licenses to display a special decal on their cars.  The Motor Vehicle Commission applied that requirement only to drivers under age 21.  Plaintiffs challenged the law, asserting that it was preempted by a federal statute, that it constituted a violation of their right to equal protection, and that it violated the constitutional prohibition of unlawful searches and seizures.  The Law Division rejected the plaintiffs’ attacks.  The Appellate Division affirmed in an opinion by Judge Grall.

The federal preemption argument was based on the Federal Driver’s Privacy Protection Act, 18 U.S.C. §§2721-2725.  That law forbids a state department of motor vehicles from disclosing or otherwise making available various types of a driver’s “personal information.”  Plaintiffs contended that a driver’s age group (under age 21) is such “personal information.”  The Appellate Division disagreed, noting that the federal statute does not list age group as “personal information” (or “highly restricted personal information,” another statutory category), and the types of things that are listed, such as a driver’s name, address, photograph, medical or disability information, or social security number, are not comparable to a driver’s age group.

The Appellate Division had no difficulty in rebuffing the equal protection argument.  Only a rational basis for treating New Jersey drivers under age 21 differently from others was necessary to sustain the statute.  Judge Grall found a rational basis in that the law facilitated enforcement of the graduated driver’s license restrictions applicable to young New Jersey drivers who held learner’s permits or other licenses covered by the statute.   

Finally, there was no improper search and seizure.  A driver has no privacy interest in his or her age group.  Moreover, it is not a “search” for a law enforcement officer merely to observe the decal on the outside of a vehicle.

After the law was passed, some members of the public complained that it would help sexual predators identify and attack young women drivers.  Plaintiffs raised policy arguments in their appeal, but the Appellate Division declined to address them.  Instead, Judge Grall noted that those arguments were for the Legislature and that, in fact, several bills that would revise the law are currently pending in legislative committees.  The Legislature, not a court, is indeed the place to determine whether this law should stand as it is or be amended or repealed.

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