Submitted By Darren Smith, Weekend Contributor
Many are aware of the incident in October of 2011 when the Florida Highway Patrol stopped a speeding Miami Police Department vehicle operating without emergency equipment, weaving through traffic and reaching speeds up to 120 MPH. The MPD officer driving claimed to be late for an off-duty assignment at an area school. The police officer was eventually fired by Miami PD. Dash-cam video was uploaded to Youtube and witnessed by many. The incident also made national headlines. The Miami PD officer involved had no emergent or law enforcement justification for driving at this speed and doing so without emergency lighting is considered hazardous. Dash-cam video quotes the trooper as saying one of the reasons for her concern was that a day prior a police vehicle was stolen and was involved in a tragic incident.
Now the Florida Highway Patrol Trooper, Donna Jane Watts, has filed a civil suit against several officers and police agencies alleging her driver license information had been unlawfully accessed and that she had been subjected to harassment by other law enforcement officers due the incident involving the Miami Police Department officer.
Donna claims that not long after the incident, she began receiving random telephone calls including threats, harassment, and pranks. Cars unfamiliar to her and several police vehicles began parking outside her residence which made her uncomfortable and she became worried for her safety.
She suspected the reason for these random cars showing up was the result of her driver license information being accessed by these other officers and through a public disclosure request she discovered her license information had been accessed over two hundred times over a three month period by eighty eight law enforcement officers from twenty five agencies.
In her lawsuit against these officers and their agencies, Donna claims under the federal Driver Privacy Protection Act of 1994, she is entitled to a penalty of $2,500.00 for each violation of the act where the access of the information served no legitimate purpose. Donna reportedly could collect $500,000.00 and most of the officers involved received some form of discipline from their agencies.
The police agencies responded, claiming they were not subject to the law since the access of the information was not for a financial gain purpose and therefore outside the scope of the law. They are seeking a dismissal of the lawsuit. The Justice Department reportedly disagrees with these agencies’ claim.
The lawsuit is not sitting well with various agencies. The National Association of Police Agencies (NAPO) is currently lobbying congress to remove the $2,500.00 penalty and to restructure the law so that violations would only occur if there is economic damage.
Harassment seldom involves economic benefit to the guilty party. In fact this was one of the main reasons numerous state legislatures prohibited public disclosure of driver license information, especially due to stalking and assaults that were taking place after aggressors used driver’s address information to locate them.
There is little defense to the act of accessing Donna’s license information without justification. Not only is this unlawful in the aforementioned federal act, but it is a violation of NLETS (National Law Enforcement Telecommunications System) policy as well as state analogues.
NAPO’s lobbying efforts do not serve to protect the public, but rather agencies and governments. NAPO claims the act in its current form allows lawyers to hit agencies up for penalties against individual officers for simply accessing information. This is not the case if these officers followed standard procedures and had a need to know the information. There is no legitimate reason for an officer to access driver license information unless it has a specific purpose, whether it is during a criminal or traffic investigation, to ascertain contact information of a potential witness, or to locate a person for a legitimate law enforcement function such as serving an arrest warrant or civil paper. If the officers were using it for a legitimate purpose there is no cause for these “lawyers” as NAPO puts it to seek penalties against individual officers.
Donna did nothing to earn what she received in terms of the harassment and privacy violations alleged. NAPO’s attempt to perpetuate potential harassment situations by clearing the way for future violations of citizens’ privacy is equally inexcusable.
By Darren Smith
The views expressed in this posting are the author’s alone and not those of the blog, the host, or other weekend bloggers. As an open forum, weekend bloggers post independently without pre-approval or review. Content and any displays or art are solely their decision and responsibility.