Minn. audit finds half of cops did questionable searches

Published 10:27 am Wednesday, September 28, 2016

MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota’s Department of Public Safety disclosed a small handful of cases in which police employees were disciplined for misusing law enforcement databases between 2013 and 2015. But a 2013 report by the state’s legislative auditor estimated more than half of Minnesota’s 11,000 law enforcement users of the Driver and Vehicle Services website made questionable searches in fiscal year 2012.

They queried about themselves or people with the same last names, or disproportionately searched for people of one sex, the audit found. The website collects and maintains protected driver information.

The auditor found at least 88 instances of misuse already documented in state records, including cases in which officers used the database to find addresses of friends or learn information about co-workers and relatives. But the investigation found more suspicious cases through a review of users’ audit trails, which track what information was sought and when. The report also found suspicious searches of “highly queried” people, such as a murder victim whose name was searched 158 times in a single month by 110 employees of 59 Minnesota law enforcement agencies.

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“The state’s approach to managing law enforcement’s use of state databases is reasonable, but monitoring and accountability need to be strengthened,” Legislative Auditor James Nobles wrote in the report.

The Department of Public Safety said officers no longer access the driver database through a website and instead use it through a more secure portal the agency says allows for greater accountability.

Officers are trained on proper use of the system, and the agency conducts routine audits of officers’ searches. The department said it also developed procedures to prevent former employees from accessing the database.

The auditor’s report came after several high-profile cases, including that of a former Department of Natural Resources employee charged with illegally viewing the driver records of at least 5,000 people, mostly women. A Minnesota police officer who sued several agencies after her driver’s license information was snooped received more than $1 million in settlements.

Dorie Jessen, a former 911 operator, sued Blue Earth County, alleging her former fiance, also a county employee, wrongfully searched for information on her and her family more than 100 times after they broke up.

“I felt increased anxiety. If this individual was capable of doing this this many times, what else was that individual doing that I didn’t know about?” said Jessen, who settled the lawsuit with the county for $77,500 in 2015. “It made me feel violated, quite honestly.”

Joseph Flynn, an attorney who represented Blue Earth County in the case, said the increased attention on database misuse in Minnesota has “had a chilling effect on legitimate law enforcement use of the information.”

At least 35 other people, including an attorney, a former Miss Minnesota and television news reporters, have filed lawsuits in the state alleging officers inappropriately queried about them, sometimes thousands of times.