A U.S. District Court judge on Friday threw out three major cases involving hundreds of allegations of improper public-employee snooping into driver’s license data, saying no federal law was violated and driver information is not private.
In three similar orders, Judge David Doty said information on drivers’ licenses such as eye color, height, weight and address may be personal, but it’s not private.
“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.
Doty dismissed all federal and state claims in the three lawsuits.
His rulings are significant because the lawsuits involved hundreds of lookups that could have cost cities and counties millions of dollars. Similar electronic lookups led in the past two years to an unprecedented filing of lawsuits against cities and counties throughout the state.
Cities like Minneapolis and St. Paul are named, but so are smaller towns. Taxpayers statewide could ultimately take a hit from the rulings.
The cases dismissed involve three plaintiffs: Brian Potocnik, Johanna Beth McDonough and Brooke Nicole Bass. 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.
St. Paul City Attorney Sara Grewing hailed the decisions. “This is a major victory for municipalities,” she said. “We’re hopeful that this will stem the tide of these lawsuits.”
Privacy isn’t guaranteed
A critical question in the cases was whether viewing driver’s license data without an official purpose qualifies as a misuse under 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, Doty wrote about two dozen pages with similar reasoning. 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.
“A person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties,” Doty wrote, quoting from a 1979 U.S. Supreme Court case. The judge also said that data collected for regulatory purposes — such as that involved in driving and owning cars — come with a reduced expectation of privacy.
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.
He also wrote that a search would be illegal “only if it violates a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy.”
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.”
Grundhoefer noted that the rulings in these cases don’t guarantee dismissals pending in other cases or with other judges.
A flurry of cases
Attorneys for the plaintiffs didn’t return calls late Friday.
Bass, a former attorney for a labor union, claimed that 340 law enforcement officers queried her vehicle services file more than 750 times between 2005 and 2013. She sued about 96 local governments seeking more than $2 million in damages.
Potocnik, a former Minneapolis police officer, filed suit against about 33 local governments claiming that more than 200 officers viewed his data 420 times. He sought more than $1 million in damages. He was fired from the police department after having an affair with a student at a school where he was working off-duty.
McDonough, a prominent television producer and reporter, claimed that her privacy was violated with unwarranted searches between 2006 and 2013.
Many of the plaintiffs in the cases are women and include former police officers, TV news readers, and ex-partners of public employees.
The wave of litigation started in 2012 with former police officer Anne Marie Rasmusson, who eventually received more than $1 million in settlements.
Rock County also settled a potential class-action lawsuit last October for $2 million. That case involved a county child support officer who made more than 4,000 queries of friends, neighbors and co-workers between 2010 and 2011.