Appeals court revisits misuse of Minnesota driver’s license database

MINNEAPOLIS -- A federal appeals court revived three lawsuits filed by Minnesotans whose private driver's license data was accessed hundreds of times by law-enforcement agencies.

MINNEAPOLIS - A federal appeals court revived three lawsuits filed by Minnesotans whose private driver’s license data was accessed hundreds of times by law-enforcement agencies.

The volume and pattern of some data checks was unusual and likely impermissible, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said last week in overturning the dismissal of some federal lawsuits.

The high court’s decision, issued Thursday, dealt with four federal lawsuits centering on similar same data-breach claims. Trial courts had dismissed them; three dismissals were partly reversed.

The appeals court limited the revived claims to those within a four-year statute of limitations and analyzed look-ups to find suspicious patterns - such as multiple checks from unrelated agencies within a short timeframe or multiple late-night accesses. Claims outside those categories were dismissed.

The lawsuits were part of a larger data debacle that began in 2011 after a lawsuit by Anne Marie Rasmusson, a former St. Paul police officer, disclosed that her data had been looked up more than 550 times by fellow officers and prompted a review by the legislative auditor.


The audit found that more than half of Minnesota law enforcement personnel with access to driver’s license data might have made inappropriate searches.

Rasmusson’s case was followed by a lawsuit against former Department of Natural Resources officer John Hunt, who was accused of making more than 19,000 license data searches, mostly of women. Those high-profile cases and the subsequent audit inspired others to request their own look-up information; the fallout included lawsuits against more than 100 Minnesota government agencies.

The state’s Driver and Vehicle Services database is accessible to law enforcement agencies and other government employees for limited official purposes.

Thursday’s opinion touched on lawsuits filed by Brooke Nicole Bass, Johanna Beth McDonough, Dawn Mitchell and Brian Potocnik.

The appeals court upheld dismissal of Potocnik’s case because most data checks came from within the Minneapolis Police Department, against whom he has filed a separate case. Potocnik was a former Minneapolis police officer forced to resign after an affair with a minor.

In the case of Bass, a former negotiator and attorney for Law Enforcement Labor Services, a law-enforcement union, her personal information was viewed via name search more than 750 times by about 340 government personnel since 2005. Of the 69 agencies who accessed Bass’ information during the statute of limitations period, 38 were deemed nonsuspicious by the appeals court; claims against the other 31 agencies were revived on appeal. Those include the Anoka and Washington county sheriff’s departments; Ramsey County Dispatch Center; and police departments of Oakdale, Stillwater, Minneapolis, Mounds View and St. Anthony.

McDonough, a KSTP reporter, said her information was accessed about 500 times by more than 170 government personnel from about 70 agencies between 2006 and 2013, according to court documents. Of the 15 agencies that accessed McDonough’s information during the limitations period, seven did not exhibit patterns of abusive checks, the appeals opinion said. The claims against eight should stand, the court said.

Mitchell, a Fox 9 anchor and reporter, claims her information was accessed about 219 times by about 50 entities between 2005 and 2013. Of the 15 agencies that accessed Mitchell’s information during the limitations period, Mitchell’s claims against four - Edina and Minneapolis police, the St. Croix County, Wis., sheriff’s office and the Minnesota State Patrol - were revived on appeal.


The Pioneer Press is a media partner of Forum News Service.

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