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Title 23 U.S.C.S. § 409 protects all reports, surveys, schedules, lists, or data actually compiled or collected for 23 U.S.C.S. § 152 purposes, but does not protect information that was originally compiled or collected for purposes unrelated to § 152 and that is currently held by the agencies that compiled or collected it, even if the information was at some point "collected" by another agency for § 152 purposes.
The Hazard Elimination Program (23 USCS 152) provided state and local governments with funding to improve the most dangerous sections of public roads. To be eligible for funds under 152, a state or local government must conduct and systematically maintain an engineering survey of its public roads to identify hazards. To address the states' reluctance to comply fully with these information-gathering requirements for fear that such compliance would make state and local governments easier targets for negligence actions, Congress enacted a provision of the Surface Transportation and Uniform Relocation Assistance Act of 1987 (23 USCS 409), protecting information compiled in connection with certain federal highway safety programs from being discovered or admitted in certain federal or state trials. Following a fatal accident at a highway intersection in Pierce County, Washington, the accident victim's husband sought information about previous accidents at the intersection. After the county asserted that any relevant information was protected by 409, the husband and another plaintiff filed an action against the county in the Superior Court of Pierce County, in which action it was alleged that the county's refusal to disclose violated Washington's public disclosure statute. The Superior Court granted the plaintiffs summary judgment. Plaintiffs were also able to obtain an interlocutory order to compel disclosure. The Washington Supreme Court declared that a grant of privilege to the information exceeded Congress’ powers, so it was not binding on the states. Certiorari was granted.
At the outset, the United States Supreme Court held that it lacked jurisdiction under 28 USCS 1257 to review the tort portion of the case, as the Washington Supreme Court's decision with respect to the tort action did not constitute a final judgment; but had jurisdiction under 1257(a) to review the public-disclosure portion of the case, as the Washington Supreme Court's decision with respect to the public-disclosure action constituted a final judgment. According to the Court, 409 (a) protected all reports, surveys, schedules, lists, or data actually compiled or collected for purposes of 152; but (b) did not protect information that was originally compiled or collected for purposes unrelated to 152 and that was currently held by the agencies that compiled or collected the information, even if the information was at some point "collected" by another agency for 152 purposes. Moreover, the Court held that 409 was a valid exercise of Congress' authority under the commerce clause, because Congress could reasonably have believed that adopting such a measure would result in more diligent efforts to collect relevant information, more candid discussions of hazardous locations, better informed decision-making, and, ultimately, greater safety on the nation's roads. Furthermore, the provision could consequently be viewed as legislation aimed at improving safety in the channels of commerce and increasing protection for the instrumentalities of interstate commerce.