I ran over a story today from earlier this year that raises some disturbing questions about the ability of some police departments to police themselves. Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Donna Jane Watts has sued over harassment that she encountered after pulling over another officer for speeding. A video shows Watts arresting Miami Police department officer Fausto Lopez after she was able to pull him over for speeding at 120 mph. Lopez promptly explained that he was late for an off-duty job. As a result of the arrest, other officers allegedly harassed Watts for stopping a fellow officer in the commission of a crime.
Watts was on patrol when Lopez blew past her. She was not sure who who behind the wheel and took some seven minutes to stop Lopez. Lopez was in uniform when she found him at the wheel. He then effectively admitted to the criminal act by saying he was heading to an off-duty job. According to the lawsuit, many officers believed that Watts should have then protected a fellow officer from being arrested for the crime. Instead, Watts acted like a real police officer who takes her oath seriously. She arrested Lopez.
What followed the October 2011 arrest, according to the lawsuit, was endless harassment and abuse from fellow officers from prank pizza orders to random cellphone calls to police cars sitting in her cul-de-sac. A public record request found that, over a three-month period, at least 88 law enforcement officers from 25 different agencies accessed Watts’ driver’s license information more than 200 times.
She is now suing both the department and individual officers under the federal Driver Privacy Protection Act, a 1994 law that provides for a penalty of $2,500 for each violation if the information was improperly accessed. The lawsuit however is being challenged under constitutional grounds that police officers cannot be liable for merely accessing the information as long as they don not try to sell it.