Legal fight over driver's license snooping turns political

  • Article by: RANDY FURST , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 13, 2013 - 11:15 AM

Lawsuit escalates backlash against public employees looking at driver’s license info.

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Attorney Erick Kaardal spoke on behalf of plaintiffs Beverly Snow, Rep. Steve Drazkowski, and Jim and Deb Roschen, on Thursday at a State Capitol news conference. Eighteen people filed suit in federal court against 79 counties, municipalities and state agencies.

Photo: David Joles • djoles@startribune.com,

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Julie Porcher wrote a letter to the editor complaining about the Wabasha County Board.

State Rep. Steve Drazkowski is “outspoken for government reform.”

As a result, both said they became the targets of invasive searches of their driver’s license information. They and 16 other people filed a federal lawsuit Thursday against 79 counties, municipalities and state agencies that they said looked up their information illegally more than 600 times.

The suit is one of about 20 filed so far against counties, municipalities and state agencies in an escalating backlash against snooping by public employees into driver’s license data. A Star Tribune survey of major cities and counties and the insurers for smaller government bodies show the total number of inappropriate lookups being claimed surpasses 8,400 — not counting a Department of Natural Resources employee accused of thousands of inappropriate searches.

Other cases have alleged more illegal searches. Brooke Bass, a former ­attorney for a law enforcement labor union, claims that about 340 officers queried her file more than 750 times between 2005 and 2013. She has sued about 96 local governments, seeking more than $2 million in damages.

But the suit announced Thursday in a hearing room at the State Capitol alleged political retaliation. Plaintiffs — including two members of the Wabasha County Board, a former board member, and citizens involved in county politics — contend that they were targeted because of their positions on local issues.

The suit alleges Wabasha County authorities illegally accessed the state’s driver’s license database to look up information about the plaintiffs when they “took a side against the Wabasha County government — building a new county jail (2009-2010), negotiating union contracts (2011-2012), changing county government and personnel (2011-2012), creating a study commission (2012-2013), shutting down the county driver safety school (2013), etc.”

Attorney Erick Kaardal said Wabasha County Attorney James Nordstrom and Sheriff Rodney Bartsch were among those involved in targeting his clients.

“Mr. Nordstrom has identified my clients as political opponents, and he and Sheriff Bartsch and three County Board members have allowed the use of government resources for partisan purposes,” he said.

The bulk of the lookups appear to be from Wabasha County, many by members of the sheriff’s office.

Bartsch said “it would absolutely be false” that the lookups by his officers were politically motivated. But when asked if they may have made illegal queries, he said, “I cannot say it is not possible. Anything is possible.”

Nordstrom acknowledged that there have been improper accessing of people’s information across the state, but said it did not extend to his office. “I can tell you unequivocally that nobody in the Wabasha County attorney’s office while I’ve been county attorney, which is almost 23 years, has ever accessed that database for an illegal purpose,” he said.

“I can tell you I have not accessed that site once. I don’t even have a password.”

The Driver and Vehicle Services (DVS) database contains historical photographs, addresses and driving records on Minnesotans with licenses. It is protected by federal law against misuse, but a state audit in February found it has been routinely abused by law enforcement personnel.

Attached to the suit is a list of the entities that looked up the people’s names. While the bulk of the lookups were from Wabasha County, including many by the sheriff’s office, it also included lookups from members of the State Patrol, the state Department of Human Services and metro area law enforcement agencies.

As is typical, the state Department of Public Safety did not name the individuals who looked up the information.

Rep. Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, said that his family’s records were looked up 133 times over eight years, including 95 times for himself alone. He said he was targeted because of his political stands. “I am and have been outspoken for government reform in Wabasha County long before I was elected to office,” he said at a news conference Thursday.

Bartsch said one of the problems in determining who and why the data was accessed by members of the department is that some of the lookups occurred 10 years ago. “It could be legitimate purpose, but it might not be on record.”

  • related content

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  • Breaking down suits, notices and lookups

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    Brooke BassBass, a former attorney for a law enforcement labor union, claims that about 340 officers queried her DVS file...

  • One of the suit’s plaintiffs, Merl Norman, took his turn at the microphone Thursday as his wife, Anna Mae, right, looked on. The suit alleges political retaliation.

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