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Constitution plan would shield privacy

Catalogs pile up. Pesky telemarketers interrupt dinner. Credit card companies send envelopes screaming, "You're approved!"

One powerful Miami lawyer is fed up with that kind of unwanted attention.

He has a solution he thinks most Floridians will like: change the state Constitution to protect people's private records, such as addresses and phone numbers, thus getting the marketers off their backs.

"I'm concerned as to why I get the volume of junk mail I get in my house," said former Florida Bar president Stephen Zack, who as a member of the Constitution Revision Commission is helping examine ways to revamp the state's basic laws.

"People are making a lot of money selling this information," he said. "It's not being used for anything other than pure economic gain."

The proposed amendment, which would have to be approved by voters, would make it illegal to sell personal information about Floridians off a data base. All kinds of information now can be bought this way _ including the magazines you subscribe to, the car you drive and where you live.

Besides deterring direct marketers, Zack said the change would protect Floridians from fraud, such as criminals who assume another person's identity by compiling personal data.

But his amendment has many who use records on edge, including law enforcement officials, businesses and journalists. They say he wants to unfairly cut off access to public information they need.

"It has a superficial appeal to protect citizens," said Martha Barnett, a Tallahassee lawyer and member of the Constitution Revision Commission. "You don't want government or private interests intruding into your life. But I think that proposal as drafted is unworkable in today's world."

It's not clear how the appointed commission, composed of lawyers, politicians, judges and business leaders, would vote on Zack's plan. It is one of 180 proposals under consideration; each would require 22 votes from the 37-member panel to get on the 1998 statewide ballot. If Zack's plan gets on the ballot, observers on both sides agree it likely would pass because there is such widespread fear of losing privacy.

That worries critics, who ask:

What if investigators couldn't track down deadbeat parents who owe child support? What if police departments couldn't buy the state's license plate data base and use it to track down suspects?

Law enforcement investigators use data bases every day, said Sgt. Greg Tita of the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.

"Can you imagine if we have to ask the permission of a suspect to look at their records?" Tita said.

Advocates of public records say Zack's proposal could cut a wide swath through Florida's Sunshine Law.

"That is so broad you could drive a truck through it," said Barbara Petersen, executive director of the First Amendment Foundation, an advocacy group funded in part by newspapers. "Right now it stinks. This is not protecting anybody's privacy."

Petersen said Zack should target people who misuse information. The Legislature could toughen laws against credit card fraud, for example.

"Too often we have people who confront the problem, and their knee-jerk response is to close access" to records, Petersen said. "The more appropriate response is to focus on the offending behavior."

Business advocates, meanwhile, say Zack's plan would hurt Florida's economy. Direct marketing is a $1-trillion-a-year industry nationwide and accounts for $62.6-billion in Florida.

"The whole point of this is a major part of commerce stops if you can't find some way to target your markets," said Richard Barton, senior vice president of the Direct Marketing Association in Washington.

Zack insists his plan is likely to change a lot before it ever gets to the ballot.

At a recent meeting of a Revision Commission subcommittee that was studying his proposal, Zack told a roomful of business lobbyists that he had no intention of attacking public records.

He suggested specific exemptions for law enforcement agencies and investigators seeking deadbeat parents. He also promised to protect access to public records.

"It was not intended to change anything to do with the Sunshine Law," Zack said in an interview. "All documents that are open would remain open and be open to anyone."

Zack said the Constitution should protect people from what could come in the future. The Constitution Revision Commission meets just once every 20 years, and waiting so long to address this issue could be too late, he fears.

"Imagine what the technology will be like 20 years from now," he said. "Big Brother is most certainly alive and well. People have to be concerned that they have privacy to the limited extent that they have any left."

Proposing a change in the Constitution

Article I, Section 23, Declaration of Rights in the Florida Constitution, could be amended as follows, if voters agree:

The sale of personal information relating to a natural person which is obtained from a database is prohibited, unless the natural person gives written consent.