A top Minneapolis employee facing a criminal charge of misusing driver's license records argued in court Thursday that he's being unfairly targeted for a practice that was rampant at City Hall.

After 37 years as a city employee, housing inspections director Tom Deegan was put on paid leave in September when prosecutors charged him with accessing driver's license records without a business purpose. The records, which contain photographs, addresses and driving histories of nearly every Minnesotan, are protected under state and federal law.

Misuse of driver and vehicle services (DVS) records is a common problem among public employees across Minnesota, according to state audits, but records show that it rarely leads to criminal prosecution. The city of St. Paul, which is prosecuting Deegan, simultaneously filed similar charges against Deegan's colleague Michael Karney this fall.

Deegan's position often required him to look up driver's license records, but prosecutors claim that at least some of his 3,370 queries over 5 1/2 years were unauthorized. They cite Deegan's frequent queries of his own file, in addition to those of his deceased family members, which could fall outside the law.

Deegan admits looking up his relatives' records, but denies looking up many of the names cited by an internal affairs investigator and says other employees used his password.

"By picking on Mr. Deegan, the city has opened up its very own Pandora's box," wrote Paul Engh, Deegan's attorney, in a pretrial filing to dismiss the case. Engh wrote previously that "access of private records was an endemic problem in the city of Minneapolis. ... It was part and parcel of the culture promoted by members of the City Council no less."

They point to the city's decision to pay Anne Marie Rasmusson $392,500 this fall to settle a lawsuit which claimed that many Minneapolis officers -- as well as those in other jurisdictions -- snooped into her DVS records. Deegan is seeking the names of each city cop accused in the case.

"We want to know why Mr. Deegan has been charged with this triviality, where the police officers haven't been," Engh said in court Thursday.

St. Paul assistant city attorney James Jerskey said the actions of the officers in the Rasmusson case are irrelevant, and Deegan can't argue that he is being selectively prosecuted because there's no evidence of discrimination. Jerskey wrote in a court filing that Deegan is seeking "an opportunity to conduct a fishing expedition."

Engh countered in court that if the case centers on Deegan looking up records on himself and relatives, "it's a waste of time."

If the case goes to trial, numerous city employees could be called to the stand. Deegan told a police investigator that he routinely made checks for other city employees and was once asked to run the plate of a vehicle that cut off an employee in traffic.

The city said Thursday that Deegan is still a city employee. Engh said last week that Deegan has a hearing in January to challenge his employment status.

Hennepin District Judge Laurie Miller said she will consider the arguments before deciding whether the case should proceed. Prosecutors have offered to drop the case if Deegan performs 40 hours of community service, pays $300 and doesn't break the law.

Misuse of DVS records was once widespread in the very building where the case was heard Thursday. Administrators in the Fourth Judicial District disciplined 25 employees for misusing DVS data in August 2011 -- 10 of them were suspended without pay.

Eric Roper • 612-673-1732 Twitter: @StribRoper