Attorneys for people whose driver's license data was repeatedly searched for no apparent reason by law enforcement officers have been buoyed by a decision of a three-judge panel of the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that in some cases the searches were "suspicious" and their lawsuits should not be dismissed.
While the appellate court dismissed many of the more than 200 cities, counties and other entities named as defendants, it allowed three suits to go forward against 45 cities and counties. It potentially opens the door to a dozen or more cases that were previously dismissed by district court judges in the Twin Cities and that are awaiting Appeals Court decisions.
The Appeals Court said in its decision last Thursday that lawsuits by three women — two TV reporters and a lawyer — should be permitted to continue because of allegations of "frequent late-night accesses" of information by police and sheriff's deputies where there appeared to be no evidence of criminal violations.
The Appeals Court also cited searches by officers in various agencies, during short periods of time only minutes apart or a large number of searches for no apparent reason.
"I think there were a lot of steps in the right direction by the Eighth Circuit, acknowledging viable claims against law enforcement agencies for these privacy breaches," said Sonia Miller-Van Oort, an attorney with the Sapientia law group of Minneapolis, which represents many people who have sued over the lookups.
All claims by Brian Potocnik, a former Minneapolis police officer, were tossed.
Stephanie Angolkar, an attorney for the League of Minnesota Cities Trust Fund, which represents many of the cities that were sued, expressed disappointment that all the dismissals by federal judges in the Twin Cities were not upheld. But she said she was pleased that the Appeals Court had sided with the league on its position on a statute of limitations.
The Appeals Court said a claim of data abuse must be filed within four years from the date a driver's license data was accessed. Attorneys for plaintiffs had argued it should be four years from when they discovered their data had been searched or from when someone should have reasonably known it was looked up.
The state legislative audit subcommittee heard evidence in 2013 that at least 50 percent of law enforcement officers in Minnesota were misusing the database by accessing it for an impermissible purpose.
The three plaintiffs who will be allowed to continue to pursue their claims in federal district court in Minneapolis are Brooke Nicole Bass, who had been an attorney for Law Enforcement Labor Services, a law enforcement union; Beth McDonough, a former reporter for Fox 9 News and now a reporter for KSTP-TV; and Dawn Mitchell, a news anchor and sports reporter for Fox 9.
The outcome of the various lawsuits filed over the data access issue is far from clear. About a dozen cases are awaiting decision before the Eighth Circuit, according to Miller-Van Oort, and other cases are wending their way through Federal District Court.
Both sides in the current Eighth Circuit decision indicated they may appeal, the three clients over the statute of limitations, the cities over the reversal of the dismissals.
The potential payout if many people ultimately win their cases is huge. The federal law provides for a payment of $2,500 for each impermissible lookup, plus attorney fees and possible punitive damages.
Miller-Van Oort said the Appeals Court decision is significant because it rejected the argument of law enforcement that it was permissible for officers to look up the data, no matter what the reason.
Told that attorneys for the three plaintiffs were happy about the Eighth Circuit ruling, Angolkar said, "I am not surprised that they are pleased because these claims are attorney-fee driven."
"We didn't bring this cases for fees. We brought these cases to address a significant abuse problem," responded Miller-Van Oort.