Pierce County v. Guillen

PETITIONER:Pierce County
LOCATION:Harris County Sheriff’s Department

DOCKET NO.: 01-1229
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: Washington Supreme Court

CITATION: 537 US 129 (2003)
ARGUED: Nov 04, 2002
DECIDED: Jan 14, 2003

Daniel R. Hamilton – Tacoma, Washington, argued the cause for the petitioner
Paul D. Clement – Department of Justice, argued the cause as intervenor
Salvador A. Mungia – Argued the cause for the respondents

Facts of the case

The Hazard Elimination Program provides state governments with funding to improve the most dangerous sections of their roads. To be eligible for funding, a state must undertake a thorough evaluation of its public roads. This led to concerns that the absence of confidentiality would increase the liability risk for accidents that took place at hazardous locations before improvements could be made. Ultimately, Congress provided that materials “compiled or collected” for purposes of the program “shall not be subject to discovery or admitted into evidence in a Federal or State court proceeding.” In 1996, Ignacio Guillen’s wife died in an automobile accident in a Pierce County, Washington intersection. While Washington had previously been denied funding for the intersection where the accident occurred, its second request was granted after the accident. Guillen first sought information on the intersection and then asserted that the state had been negligent in failing to install proper traffic controls. Washington sought to protect itself under the Program. The Washington Supreme Court held that the Program exceeded Congress’s power under the Constitution.


Does the Hazard Elimination Program exceed Congress’s authority under the Commerce Clause?

Media for Pierce County v. Guillen

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – November 04, 2002 in Pierce County v. Guillen

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – January 14, 2003 in Pierce County v. Guillen

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in No. 01-1229 Pierce County versus Guillen will be announced by Justice Thomas.

Clarence Thomas:

This case comes to us on a writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court of Washington.

23 U.S.C. Section 409 provides that materials compiled or collected for the purpose of certain road safety programs shall not be subject to the discovery or admitted into evidence in a Federal or State Court proceeding.

As initially adopted Section 409 protected it from disclosure only materials compiled for the prescribed purposes.

The phrase or collectibles added to the statute in 1995.

Respondents’s wife died in a car accident at an intersection in Pierce County, Washington.

When respondent sought to obtain from petitioner documents about that intersection’s accident history, petitioner claims such information was protected by Section 409.

The Washington Supreme Court disagreed finding that the 1995 amendment to Section 409 exceeded Congress’ authority under the Spending, Commerce and Necessary and Proper Clauses.

In an opinion filed with the Clerk, we dismiss the writ of certiorari with respect to one portion of this case.

With respect to the remainder, we reverse the judgment of the Supreme Court of Washington and remand for further proceedings.

In light of the canon that evidentiary privileges must be construed narrowly, we conclude that Section 409 protects from disclosure only information compiled or collected for the purposes of the relevant road safety program.

Information compiled or collected for purposes unrelated to the program and held by the agency that are regionally compiled or collected the information is not protected by Section 409.

This is so even if that information was at some point collected by another agency for purposes of the safety program.

As so construed, Section 409 and its 1995 Amendment fall within Congress’s authority to regulate the use of the channels of interstate commerce and to regulate and protect the instrumentalities of interstate commerce.

The opinion of the Court is unanimous.