Judge dismisses 3 driver’s license snooping cases

Published 4:15 pm Saturday, February 22, 2014

MINNEAPOLIS — A federal judge Friday dismissed three cases in Minnesota involving hundreds of allegations of improper public-employee snooping into driver’s license data, saying no federal law was violated.

U.S. District Judge David Doty also ruled that driver information is not private.

In three similar orders, Doty said information on driver’s licenses such as eye color, height, weight and address may be personal, but it’s not private. He dismissed all federal and state claims in the three lawsuits.

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“The identical information can be obtained from public property tax records … (and) there is a long history in the United States of treating motor vehicle records as public records,” the judge’s order said, citing a 1998 ruling from a different circuit.

The lawsuits involved hundreds of lookups that could have cost cities and counties millions of dollars. Similar electronic lookups led to a spate of lawsuits against cities and counties throughout Minnesota in the past two years.

St. Paul City Attorney Sara Grewing called the decision “a major victory for municipalities.”

“We’re hopeful that this will stem the tide of these lawsuits,” Grewing said.

The dismissed cases involve three plaintiffs: Brian Potocnik, a former Minneapolis police officer; Johanna Beth McDonough, a television producer and reporter; and Brooke Nicole Bass, a former attorney for a labor union. The three sued multiple counties and cities, claiming that the alleged snooping amounted to violations of federal law as well as their constitutional right to privacy and freedom from unreasonable search.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs didn’t return calls to the newspaper late Friday.

A critical question in the cases was whether viewing driver’s license data without an official purpose qualifies as a misuse under the federal Driver’s Privacy Protection Act.

The driver database contains historical photographs, addresses and driving records on Minnesotans with a license.

In each of the three orders, the judge said the plaintiffs failed to show that the defendants had accessed their records for an impermissible reason.

“In the absence of clear evidence to the contrary, courts presume that (public officers) have properly discharged their official duties,” he wrote.

He also found that Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches didn’t apply, because the data being searched belonged to the state Department of Public Safety, not the plaintiffs.

Tom Grundhoefer of the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust is representing about 150 cities in similar lawsuits. “We’re obviously pleased,” he said of Friday’s rulings, but added, “We also know there’s likely to be appeals.”