The Attorney General's office has asked a federal judge to dismiss what it says could be a "catastrophic" class action lawsuit regarding one state employee's misuse of drivers license data.

Five different lawsuits, all seeking class action status, have been filed in relation to former Department of Natural Resources employee John Hunt repeatedly accessing drivers license data inappropriately. They are being handled jointly.

The state said Hunt, an administrative manager for the department, made 11,747 queries of the protected data while off duty. He has been charged criminally for misusing the driver and vehicle services (DVS) database, which contains photographs, addresses and driving records on most Minnesotans.

The attorney general's motion in the civil case, which was filed on Tuesday, contends the state should not be held liable for the actions of one employee. They say Hunt alone should be sued. Whether a judge agrees is important, since the damages could be hefty.

"The results would be catastrophic, particularly if statutorily liquidated damages of $2,500 per violation were imposed," the motion said.

The motion added that if the state were held liable, "state officials may be left with the impossible choice of either shutting down the database or running the risk of ruinous personal liability." 

The attorney general's office also argued that the data contained on a drivers license is not protected by the constitutional right to privacy. "Individuals show drivers' licenses to provide identity in a myriad of situations -- when entering a bar, when cashing a check, when boarding a plane," the filing says.

Altogether, about 11 cases are pending in federal court related to misuse of drivers license records. Five are connected to the Hunt allegations.

Getting favorable opinions from federal judges will be key for local prosecutors, who fear major payouts of taxpayer dollars if damages are awarded.

Minneapolis city attorney Susan Segal said recently that the federal statute that protects driver data has not been widely interpreted by the courts nationally. Questions remain, for example, about how damages are calculated.

“We are going to try to get some reasonable rulings out of the court,” Segal said, speaking generally. “Because while people have an absolute right to expect that private information in the hands of governmental agencies is only going to be accessed appropriately, it’s another thing for people to get a windfall out of taxpayer dollars."


Photo: Hunt testifying at the Legislature in 2010. Copyright Minnesota House of Representatives. Photo by Andrew VonBank.

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