Reporting Pat Kessler
MINNEAPOLIS (AP/WCCO) – A group of current and former Minnesotans who have been critical of Wabasha County government say dozens of public employees violated their privacy by illegally looking up driver’s license data for political reasons, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday in U.S. District Court.
The 18 people say their private data was accessed more than 600 times since April 18, 2003, by public officials who were targeting them “based on their political involvement.” The lawsuit claims the defendants were looking for criminal records, driving violations, expired car license tabs or other information that could make the plaintiffs — some of whom are elected officials — political targets.
The lawsuit separates the defendants into three groups: Wabasha County defendants, state defendants and other county, court and municipal defendants. The lawsuit claims the Wabasha County defendants had political motives, but it says it’s unclear why state or other public employees accessed their data. The plaintiffs’ group is reform-oriented, and includes liberals, conservatives, Republicans and Democrats.
Beverly Snow says she and her husband were “pinged” hundreds of times by law enforcement after she publicly criticized county officials.
“They have put fear into me because I’m home alone at night,” said Snow, the former Mayor of Hammond, Minn. “Nobody should have to live in fear because you’ve been checked.”
Plaintiffs’ attorney Erick Kaardal said in a statement that information from the Department of Public Safety and the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension shows the violations occurred as a result of the plaintiffs’ political activities. For example, he said, the plaintiffs’ data was accessed after announcements for political candidacy, on the day letters critical of the government were printed in the newspaper and on dates immediately following county board meetings where group members challenged public officials.
“All of this could be quite useful to a law enforcement officer who is involved in partisan causes,” Kaardal said. “Like stopping my people from getting elected.”
State Representative Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, says county officials accessed his family’s personal information 133 times, including his wife and daughter.
“These flagrant violations of law by the people we entrust with it, are an abusive exercise of power,” Drazkowski said.
State officials and agencies are also named because they “have created a system that is easily and frequently abused by local law enforcement officials for political purposes,” the lawsuit states. Among other things, the lawsuit says DPS has failed to prevent unauthorized access to data.
DPS spokesman Bruce Gordon said he could not comment on litigation.
DPS Commissioner Ramona Dohman wrote in a Feb. 5 letter to the legislative auditor that sensitive data should not be accessed in a manner that violates trust of citizens. Dohman said DPS was working to increase oversight and strengthen database-user training.
Wabasha County Attorney Jim Nordstrom said Thursday afternoon that he hadn’t seen the lawsuit. But he said there are agencies throughout the county — including his office, the sheriff’s office and others — that are allowed to lawfully access the data.
“There are many valid reasons for accessing those sites,” he said. For example, any law enforcement officer on duty would likely access the database several times daily, and his office accesses it when appropriate during the prosecution of cases.
Federal law allows for a minimum of $2,500 for each violation of the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act, which makes it illegal to get an individual’s private data without a legitimate purpose. Kaardal said damages could exceed hundreds of thousands of dollars.
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