There are 14 situations in which it is legal to view someone else’s driver’s license and motor vehicle registration data.

Finding homes to ransack isn’t one of them.

Yet that’s exactly how David W. Pollard carried out his three-year burglary spree in Eden Prairie and other Hennepin County suburbs.

Pollard had an unusually high-tech method of picking his targets. He visited parking lots outside theaters, took note of the license plates of parked cars and then logged on to a service called Publicdata.com, which offered lookups for license plates to show the addresses of the owners.

When the curtains came down and the theatergoers went home, they found their homes violated and possessions looted. Minnetonka police caught Pollard in 2015, and in March he was sentenced to 11 years in prison.

The state Department of Public Safety thought there should be consequences for Publicdata.com as well. Though that’s not as simple as it sounds.

The Irving, Texas-based company is one of many outfits that legally acquire databases of government information and offer it for sale to the public. At some point, they purchased in bulk Minnesota’s driver and vehicle database.

A federal law restricts who can see that data to government agencies, employers, investigators, researchers and others with a public safety or motor vehicle purpose.

People using that data for nefarious purposes first came into Minnesota’s consciousness in 2006. Then-Attorney General Mike Hatch, who was running for governor on the DFL ticket, criticized Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty for his administration’s sale of the data to a company called ShadowSoft, which then provided it to Publicdata.com. A rash of check counterfeiting was traced to criminals who stole the identities of Minnesotans they found in that database.

That same year, the state terminated its contract with ShadowSoft. In an interview, John E. Collins, a lawyer for Publicdata.com, said he did not recall what came of that letter.

The data was still available when Pollard figured out how to exploit it years later. Collins rejected the state’s claim that Publicdata.com “allows access to private data to any person for any reason.”

“In order for a person to access driver’s information on Publicdata.com, they have to specifically state under which permissive use they are authorized,” he said.

Pollard presumably checked one of the boxes and kept going. His digital trail, though, helped put him in prison.

Collins said Publicdata.com gets subpoenas “all the time,” and the company regularly collaborates with law enforcement. It’s typically to track down identity thieves. Collins said Pollard is the first serial burglar he’s heard of who’s used the site.

Collins said many of their customers are smaller governments and employers that can’t afford a full-blown background study on potential employees.

After receiving the letter from public safety in 2015, the website took down the Minnesota driver data, Collins said, although he said the company did nothing wrong.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office declined a request from the state to take action, said Bruce Gordon, a Department of Public Safety spokesman.

Publicdata.com offers a defense of its business on its website. “Now to be sure, criminals have used Publicdata.com, but we work very aggressively with law enforcement to help assure conviction. We remain dedicated to the idea that all citizens of our free society should have access to all of the records that government collects.”

 

Contact James Eli Shiffer at james.shiffer@startribune.com or 612-673-4116.