How Close Can You Get to a Driver’s Identity via Their Plate: Can License Plates Really Reveal Personal Identities?

Picture of Yasmin K. Brinkley, MBA, LLM

Yasmin K. Brinkley, MBA, LLM

Can you legally find someone’s name using their license plate number? Here’s a comprehensive legal breakdown of the matter in the US and UK.

The Basics: What is a License Plate?

Can License Plates Really Reveal Personal Identities? At the outset, it is essential to understand what a license plate is.

A license plate affixed to a vehicle’s rear (and sometimes front) serves primarily as a unique identifier for that vehicle. It’s not intended as a direct link to personal information about the vehicle owner but to the vehicle itself.

Similarly, in the UK, license plates, commonly referred to as registration numbers or number plates, identify vehicles rather than vehicle owners.

Each plate corresponds to specific data: the vehicle’s age, location of registration, and a unique identifier. But, crucially, it does not directly reveal the owner’s name.

How Close Can You Get to a Driver's Identity via Their Plate - Can License Plates Really Reveal Personal Identities - license plate number to find someone
How Close Can You Get to a Driver’s Identity via Their Plate: Can License Plates Really Reveal Personal Identities?

Why Would Someone Want to Find Someone’s Name Using Their License Plate Number

There could be various legitimate reasons why someone would want to link a license plate to a name, such as:

  • Accidents: After a hit-and-run or minor accident where the parties didn’t exchange information.
  • Property Damage: If a car causes property damage, for instance, knocking over a mailbox or damaging a fence.
  • Personal Safety: In cases of aggressive driving or perceived threats.

However, there are also potential nefarious reasons, such as stalking, harassment, or scams.

Legal Avenues to Obtain Someone’s Name With Their License Plate Number

There are some legal avenues to link license plates to personal information, but they are generally restricted to certain entities:

  • Law Enforcement: Police and other law enforcement agencies can access vehicle registration data during their investigations or routine stops.
  • Insurance Companies: In the case of accidents or claims, insurance companies can access this data.
  • Legal Proceedings: Lawyers can request this information through subpoenas during legal proceedings.

In each of these cases, there’s an established, legitimate need for the information. There are checks and balances to ensure the data is not misused.

DMV and Public Records: US

In the U.S., the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) holds vehicle registration data.

While certain information maintained by the DMV is public record, specific personal data, like someone’s name and license plate number, is typically protected by the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act (DPPA) of 1994.

The DPPA was instituted largely in response to concerns about stalking and other privacy invasions.

It prohibits state motor vehicle agencies from disclosing personal information without the individual’s consent, with certain exceptions (like those mentioned above for law enforcement, etc.).

The DVLA and Personal Data: UK

The DVLA holds a comprehensive database of vehicles and drivers in the UK.

While certain aspects of this database are public, such as MOT (Ministry of Transport) test results and tax status, personal details like names and addresses are protected.

However, there are circumstances where the DVLA will release personal details.

For instance, if someone can demonstrate “reasonable cause” to want to use a license plate number to find someone. What constitutes “reasonable cause” can be debated.

Still, it typically covers scenarios where the information is required to pursue legal action, such as recovering debts or clarifying liability after an accident.

Risks of Illegitimate Methods to Find Someone’s Name With Their License Plate Number

While some services online claim to be able to find someone’s name using their license plate number, many of these are questionable at best. Using or trusting such services could lead to:

  • Legal Trouble: You could also be implicated if they obtain the information illegally.
  • Inaccurate Information: The data might be outdated or simply wrong.
  • Scams: Some of these services may be fronts for scams to extract money or personal details.

Protecting Your Privacy Before You Find Someone’s Name With Their License Plate Number

If you’re concerned about your privacy:

  • Check With Your DMV: Understand what information is public and what isn’t.
  • Report Suspicious Activity: If you believe someone has accessed your personal information illegally through your license plate, report it to the police. If you are in the UK and you believe your data was accessed unlawfully, contact the DVLA, and consider reporting to the ICO (Information Commissioner’s Office).

Can License Plates Really Reveal Personal Identities? Why is license plate data so protected?

License plate data is intrinsically linked to personal identification, making its protection paramount for ensuring an individual’s safety, privacy, and freedom from potential misuse.

Unrestricted access (e.g., the ability to find someone’s name using their license plate number) to such data can lead to malevolent activities, including stalking, harassment, or even more intricate crimes such as fraud and identity theft.

Furthermore, unrestricted access can breach personal privacy, making individuals vulnerable to unsolicited marketing or unwanted attention.

In a broader context, protecting this data underscores society’s commitment to upholding the fundamental rights to privacy and personal security.

Legal measures, like the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act (DPPA) in the U.S., have been enacted to strike a balance, ensuring that while certain entities (like law enforcement) can find someone’s name using their license plate number, the general public’s access is suitably restricted to prevent misuse and uphold individual rights.

Read article: Is Opening Someone Else’s Mail Illegal? US, UK and Australian Perspectives

Do Private Investigators Have The Authority To Find Someone’s Name Using Their License Plate Number?

While they might have more leeway in some jurisdictions, they generally need a valid, lawful reason. Without such reasons, even private investigators cannot access personal data linked to license plates.

Can Someone Use My License Plate Number For Identity Theft?

While a license plate can be a data point, identity theft typically requires more comprehensive personal details. However, always ensure to protect all personal information.

Can Parking Companies Access My Name Using My License Plate?

Parking companies, especially in the UK, sometimes cooperate with the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) to manage parking violations and unpaid fines.

When a vehicle violates parking rules on private land, the parking company can request the registered keeper’s details from the DVLA.

The DVLA charges a fee for this service. However, the parking company does not receive comprehensive personal data about the vehicle owner, just enough to issue a penalty notice or pursue unpaid charges.

It is worth noting that these companies must have a legitimate reason and be members of an accredited trade association to access this data.

Moreover, the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 has provisions relating to the recovery of unpaid parking charges on private land, which guide how this data can be used. Always be aware of your rights and the regulations in your specific jurisdiction.

Picture of Yasmin K. Brinkley, MBA, LLM

Yasmin K. Brinkley, MBA, LLM

Yasmin is an expert in Commercial Contracts, Securities Regulation, Corporate Governance, Intellectual Property and Media Law. Yasmin completed her LLB Degree and MBA in Toronto. She is a dual-qualified lawyer in Canada, and England & Wales, and an Adjunct Professor of Business Law. Yasmin helps small businesses and charitable bodies to navigate financial legalities.

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