Mo. judge blocks $7 fee for driver’s license records

Friday, May 30, 2008 | 7:38 p.m. CDT; updated 7:15 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — A state judge on Friday ordered the Department of Revenue to stop charging a higher fee for accessing driver’s license and motor vehicle records, finding that the increased price violates the state Sunshine Law.

The Revenue Department on May 1 started charging $7 to get those records. Previously it charged $1.25 and a fraction of a cent for companies that bought records in bulk.

Several businesses sued, seeking a court order against the fee increase. The companies argued that the new cost violates state open records laws, which limit the cost government entities can charge for copying records and providing them to the public.

State attorneys claimed a separate federal law governing motor vehicle records means that Missouri’s Sunshine Law does not apply to vehicle and driver’s license records and the state can therefore charge whatever it deems reasonable.

But Cole County Judge Richard Callahan, who interrupted testimony on Thursday to ask whether the state had any justification for the fee increase under the state Sunshine Law, disagreed.

Revenue Director Omar Davis said in a written statement on Friday that he’s disappointed by the ruling. Davis said the higher fee is a better estimate for state’s cost in maintaining the records.

Attorneys representing the companies and the state met privately with Callahan on Friday afternoon before the temporary court order blocking the fee increase was announced. A hearing over a permanent court order is scheduled for June 20.

Department of Revenue documents obtained by The Associated Press through an open records request show the department indicated in 2006 that an employee can process a record request in 3.5 minutes, which when divided by the employee’s hourly wage, results in a record retrieval cost of 67 cents. The department also can charge 10 cents per page for a copy of the records, according to the Sunshine Law.

Davis earlier this year said that he doesn’t think driver’s license and motor vehicle records fall under the Sunshine Law because there are limits on who can access them. He said the fee increase is a way to pay for a new computer system and would make the records more secure by prompting fewer companies to buy the information.

The Revenue Department in October signed a contract worth up to $50 million with Virginia-based BearingPoint Inc. to replace the state computer system for driver’s license records. Davis said the department planned to pay for the system with profits from driver’s license and motor vehicle requests and by letting the consulting firm keep $1 from every record sale.

Department records show that equipment and maintenance of the system is projected to cost nearly $70 million by 2017.

Lawmakers, many of whom expressed concern about how the fee increase would affect insurance companies and other businesses, approved legislation capping any fee increase to a half cent per record.

Testimony on Thursday also focused on the harm that the suing businesses say they are suffering because of the fee increase. In the original lawsuit, executives for some of the companies said the higher fee would increase the cost for buying the records from tens of thousands of dollars to hundreds of millions.

The suing companies had used the data for a variety of purposes, such as tracking the history of used vehicles, telling schools and trucking companies when their drivers have received traffic violations, administering vehicle safety recalls and informing insurance companies when teenagers get their driver’s license.

The companies, which had bought the state records weekly or monthly, stopped because of the higher cost.

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