A Minneapolis police sergeant has been placed on leave after a criminal complaint that he used the department's access to a state database to look up private information on people unrelated to any police business.

Walter A. Carlson, 55, of Blaine faces a gross misdemeanor charge of misconduct of a public employee for his alleged actions, which date back to 2003, according to the complaint filed in Hennepin County District Court. The allegations arose after the state Department of Public Safety conducted an audit of Carlson's access to the Driver and Vehicle Services website.

The complaint does not specify what type of information Carlson allegedly looked up. The database holds information on driver's licenses, state identification cards and vehicle registration, as well as crash records.

Carlson faces a penalty of up to one year in prison or a fine of $3,000 or both. He was placed on home leave by Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan, and his employment status will be evaluated pending the outcome of the criminal investigation, according to department spokesman Sgt. Stephen McCarty.

Carlson's attorney, Frederic Bruno, called the charge "draconian," since as a gross misdemeanor it threatens Carlson's job. Bruno suggested that the alleged crime could have been charged as a misdemeanor which, he said, would not jeopardize Carlson's Peace Officers and Standards Training license, the state license held by all Minnesota police officers.

"They're killing a fly with a sledgehammer," Bruno said.