Despite widespread misuse of driver's license records in Minnesota, determining just who is peeking into your files can prove nearly impossible.

The Minnesota Department of Public Safety, which oversees the driver's license database, refuses to tell people the names of users -- generally public employees -- who have looked up their information. Perhaps the most high-profile citizen getting stonewalled by the state is Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek, who is sparring with the department over what he believes were inappropriate queries into his driver's license records.

The Driver and Vehicle Services (DVS) database, which contains addresses, photographs and driving records on nearly every Minnesotan, is protected under state and federal law. State records show that public employees frequently have misused the database by running people's names without a business purpose. That is the subject of a major lawsuit that recently ensnared police officers across Minnesota, as well as a criminal case pending against two Minneapolis employees.

Stanek learned in June that employees at 21 agencies, including his own office, had accessed his records over several years. Some of the queries came from as far away as Wells, Minn., a small town 117 miles south of Minneapolis that he has never visited. The Department of Public Safety would not provide him with the names of the users.

"I believe that some or all of these requests may have been without a legitimate government purpose," Stanek wrote in a December letter to the Department of Administration, asking for an advisory opinion on the matter. The Department of Public Safety "and DVS appear to have purposely created obstacles to deny me an opportunity to track illegitimate access."

Stanek had made two previous requests for his lookups out of curiosity, and was surprised by how many agencies had queried his name.

This time, he says, a security concern prompted his request for the lookups.

He believes the state has an obligation to show that the lookups had a legitimate purpose, even if they do not hand over the names.

"I have a job just like anybody else," said Stanek. "The other 16 hours of my day, I'm the father of two great kids. I'm a husband of 29 years. I do have a personal life, and I do have concerns about my personal safety as well as my family's personal safety."

Provision prevents disclosure

Members of the public have rights under the Minnesota Data Practices Act to access government information about themselves.

But the public safety department told Stanek that provisions of the law governing undercover officers and security data prevented it from releasing the names.

In a separate letter a month later, the agency changed its legal reasoning for the refusal and instead cited an obscure section of the law concerning "electronic access data."

A Star Tribune reporter, Randy Furst, had a similar experience when he made a request for recent inquiries into his driver's license file and learned that employees at 16 named agencies had pulled his records over three years.

Several of the lookups took place at the same time Furst had contacted agencies while reporting on the scandal-ridden Metro Gang Strike Force.

The Department of Public Safety cited the "electronic access data" provision in denying a request for the officer names.

The brief statute classifies data concerning access of a government computer as private information.

Mark Anfinson, an attorney for the Minnesota Newspaper Association, said its intent was to protect private citizens who access government data systems, rather than public employees.

When Furst followed up with the individual agencies, some released the names, while others refused.

One of them, the Bloomington Police Department, gave an officer an oral reprimand after he said he could not recall why he accessed Furst's file.

In a statement, Department of Public Safety spokesman Bruce Gordon said protecting the database from misuse is a priority for the department.

He said the agency has begun random audits to catch inappropriate access and already does regular audits of the heaviest users.

"While we are able to provide the summary of an audit, the department has consistently withheld the names of those who have accessed the data based on Minnesota law, which says the data are private," Gordon said.

Enforcement left to agencies

When the Department of Public Safety learned of the agencies that queried Stanek's file, it sent each of them a letter asking that they investigate whether it was appropriate.

The investigation and discipline were left to each agency, and Stanek said the state never informed him of the results. The employee in his office was disciplined after an internal-affairs investigation.

"All we're asking is that somebody assure me that whoever accessed this data did so for a legitimate law enforcement purpose," Stanek said. "And if not, then take the corrective action necessary."

Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, who specializes in data-privacy issues at the Legislature, said that without names people are left "in the dark" if they suspect someone has been accessing their information inappropriately.

"I'm sure that DVS doesn't want to really open this can of worms. But if there's no sunshine, there's no accountability," Holberg said, adding that legislation might be needed to correct the problem.

'There's some irony here'

Local governments learned this year that financial consequences can accompany employees misusing DVS records when Anne Marie Rasmusson, a former St. Paul police officer, sued agencies across the state alleging misuse. She has won more than $1 million in settlements so far.

Rasmusson, like Stanek, could not get the names of those who accessed her file through state public records requests. She learned almost all of them after filing a lawsuit and using the discovery process.

"I think there's some irony here," said Rasmusson's attorney, Jonathan Strauss of the Sapientia Law Group.

Rasmusson's "private information was taken by people who weren't authorized to look at it [and who] were then being allowed to hide behind the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act to protect their identities from the victim."

Rasmusson's suit is one of several winding through the courts.

Last month, a former Minneapolis employee who now lives in Washington, D.C., sued the city over 26 lookups on her DVS record over four years.

In southwestern Minnesota, 24 plaintiffs filed suit last November against Rock County and a former child-support officer who made nearly 4,000 DVS queries over four months.

Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles is preparing a report on law enforcement databases with a focus on the DVS.

Nobles said the report, due out in February, will address citizen access of their DVS lookups.

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