By Tom Steward/Watchdog Minnesota Bureau
WABASHA — It may not rise to the level of the NSA surveillance scandal, but each week more cases alleging privacy breaches by police and government employees snooping into Minnesotans’ personal driver license data without cause come to light and go to court.
The Minnesota Department of Public Safety database contains personal information such as addresses, Social Security numbers and health conditions, according to court documents. The federal Driver’s Privacy Protection Act protects individuals from unwarranted “lookups” or “pings” of their records and levies a penalty that dwarfs any speeding ticket — $2,500 per violation.
Yet one newly minted case filed by 18 Wabasha County conservative activists — a state representative and two sitting county commissioners among them — ups the ante by raising accusations of prying into driver license data for political purposes.
“You line up dates and start to look at what was I doing around those different times and why are these particular pings concentrated here and it’s pretty clear,” said Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, whose records were accessed 94 times. “There’s definitely activity that coincides with political activity. I had a good number of pings that happened on and before and right after announcing for office in two different general elections and one special election.”
The onslaught of legal claims follows a high-profile $1 million-plus settlement for a former police officer who documented hundreds of breaches of her personal data across multiple jurisdictions. A Twin Cities news anchor and her journalist husband recently filed a lawsuit in federal court against several local governments in connection with more than 1,400 allegedly illegal inquiries.
Hundreds of citizens, meanwhile, continue to press the state for audits of their records, driving concerns about the mounting financial impact on taxpayers.
“There’s numerous claim files where people have written us saying ‘I’ve been looked up, pay me money’ without any kind of question about whether it’s legitimate or not,” said Thomas Grundhoefer, general counsel for the League of Minnesota Cities. “We have hundreds of those and at last count about 200 of our members have had some kind of claim or lawsuit brought against them.”
Driver license record audits obtained by request from the state for the Wabasha County case detail the exact time, date and agency behind a combined 600 alleged infractions over a decade, a potential $2 million liability.
“I’m 70 years old, I live a pretty mundane life,” said David Harms, a Wabasha County commissioner and retired policeman whose records were checked out 63 times. “I don’t drink, I don’t go out and spend late nights out on the roads, and there’s no reason why my information should have been accessed.”
The state withholds the names of individuals responsible for the lookups on the grounds of confidentiality. But the citizens group’s lawsuit claims the personnel include supervisors, officers, sheriffs, deputies, police chiefs, staff, investigators, employees or agents of 26 counties, 36 cities, 3 police departments and several state agencies, including the Minnesota Attorney General, Minnesota State Patrol and Minnesota Department of Corrections.
The case, however, primarily focuses on Wabasha County law enforcement and other officials involved in a long-running dispute with the citizens group over the role and size of local government. It’s not clear why other jurisdictions apparently were accessing the citizens group records.
“Wabasha County law enforcement personnel and other public employees manipulated the Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s system of maintaining personal, private information of Minnesota citizens to obtain federally protected confidential information of the members of the citizen group,” the group’s lawsuit states. “… The Wabasha County Defendants were ‘pinging’ the DPPA-protected records of (g)roup members to see if the information could be used criminally or politically against the (g)roup members.”
The citizen group’s attorney continues to pursue the release of the names of the individuals behind the snooping.
“What are we going to do with these police officers?” said Erick Kaardal, attorney for the citizens group. “In other agencies of the government, it’s a one strike and you’re out policy with respect to violating private, confidential data.”
The outcome will hinge partly on legal issues that could be decided in several other pending cases, including how to apply the four-year statute of limitations in such cases and whether an individual must show illegally accessed data was acted on in order to pursue a claim for damages.
Wabasha County authorities referred Watchdog Minnesota Bureau to an attorney defending the case on behalf of 23 counties.
“We anticipate putting in our response denying any liability,” said Jessica Schwie, a lawyer with the Twin Cities law firm of Jardine, Logan and O’Brien. “…We anticipate having the same defenses available to us to seek dismissal of all claims, and we’ll bring those types of motions when we can based upon the law that’s issued and available at the time.”
One legal question recently was settled when a judge ruled that state agencies cannot be held liable for the actions of government employees that snoop on driver record data.
“Recent court rulings have dismissed state agencies from these cases and made it clear that the departments are not liable for a user’s unauthorized access of driver and vehicle data,” said Bruce Gordon, the Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s director of communications. “The Department of Public Safety remains committed to strengthening user training and oversight of the system; however, oversight and training are no substitute for an individual honoring his or her professional and ethical obligation under the law.”
Contact Tom Steward at firstname.lastname@example.org.