Northland law enforcement agencies accused of unlawfully looking at license data
This week, the city of Duluth disclosed that for the eighth time in recent months that it has been sued for allegedly violating the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act.
The complaint accuses officers of the Duluth Police Department and the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office of unlawfully accessing the driver’s license records of Kelly Marie Engebretson, a former North Branch, Minn., police officer who made news when she successfully pursued a claim of sexual harassment against the man who was then chief of her department.
A raft of 37 other Minnesota cities and counties also are named in the suit, which alleges law enforcement officers across the state “knowingly abused their position of trust simply to satisfy their shallow desires to peek behind the curtain into the private life of Engebretson, without her knowledge and consent.”
The Engebretson lawsuit is just one of more than 50 cases brought against law enforcement agencies throughout the state, according to Tom Grundhoefer, general counsel for the League of Minnesota Cities, who said he is aware of 1,247 claims made against 229 cities and counting.
“They cast a very wide net with these cases,” said Nathan LaCoursiere, an attorney for the city of Duluth.
Kim Maki, civil division head of the St. Louis County Attorney’s office, was not sure how many suits had been brought against the sheriff’s office, alleging it of violating the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act, but she said it was more than 10.
Engebretson’s suit points to three times that her driver’s license data, including a photo, was pulled up by members of the Duluth Police Department in April 2005. The complaint says she “was not in the city of Duluth at the time the obtainments occurred and has never been charged or suspected of committing a crime in the city of Duluth, has never been involved in any civil, criminal, administrative, or arbitral proceeding in or involving the city of Duluth, and there was no legitimate reason for (her) to have been the subject of any investigation.”
St. Louis County officers were found to have looked up Engebretson’s driver’s license records 20 times. While four of those lookups may have been justified because of an employment application she briefly submitted then withdrew, the complaint contends that 16 others had no justification other than to satisfy the personal curiosity of officers.
The suit seeks $2,500 for each unjustified lookup of her driver’s license files. As it alleges these records were improperly accessed nearly 200 times between 2003 and 2012, total damages could approach $500,000 if the lawsuit proves successful.
LaCoursiere refutes the allegations, saying: “We have yet to see a single legitimate claim that an any of the city of Duluth’s employees or officers has used the state DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) database for a purpose not permitted under state or federal law.’
He noted that many of the cases alleging law enforcement had violated the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act have been dismissed, although some cases are being appealed to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Grundhoefer said he’s aware of no such case that has yet resulted in a judgment awarding any damages, but he said one claim was settled and additional settlements may be pending.
Grundhoefer said he’s aware of no other state that has been such a hotbed of similar litigation against law enforcement agencies.
A couple of law firms seem to be handling the majority of these cases, according to LaCoursiere.
“It’s kind of a cottage industry,” he said.
Jonathan Strauss, an attorney for the Sapentia Law Group in Minneapolis, the firm handling Engebretson’s case, did not immediately respond to the News Tribune’s request for comment.
Unless the suits start generating more positive results for plaintiffs, LaCoursiere expects they will drop off. But in the meantime, “it has created an enormous work and cost burden for the city to defend itself against these cases, and they continue to be filed.”
Maki said she has noticed fewer claims such as Engebretson’s being filed than in the fall.
“I think perhaps people are waiting to see how some of these cases come out before they make a determination to file more of them,” Maki said.
Nevertheless, she said: “We take any claim against the county seriously.”
Law enforcement agencies across the state are taking measures to guard against more lawsuits, according to Grundhoefer, who said cities have stepped up training and documentation protocols for when officers look up driver’s license data.