Police and other public employees in Minnesota have routinely abused their access to the massive state drivers' license database, looking up personal information on citizens thousands of times for their own purposes, records show.

In the last two years, audits have revealed that about 160 individuals, mostly in government agencies, have improperly used Minnesota's Driver and Vehicle Services (DVS) database. Protected under state and federal law, it contains photographs, addresses, driving records, physical descriptions and other details about most Minnesotans.

The database recently drew public attention when a former police officer, in an ongoing civil suit, named more than 140 officers that she has accused of inappropriately accessing her data, in many cases to see her driver's license photo.

A child-support worker in southwest Minnesota logged about 4,000 queries over four months, most of them without an official purpose. An Osseo woman received her boyfriend's DVS driving record and photo in the mail, possibly violating a restraining order, and authorities traced it to a local court employee. A deputy admitted using the database to look up the records of his ex-wife and the pop star Prince.

"This makes my blood boil. It just seems like it's a perpetual problem," said Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, who often handles data issues at the Legislature. "If we're building new computer systems, which supposedly we are, we shouldn't be having these issues."

Records obtained by the Star Tribune show that the consequences for these privacy violations vary widely. Some employees caught snooping in the database have merely gotten reprimands, while others have been fired. Many lose access to the database temporarily. In rare instances, some have been charged with gross misdemeanor criminal offenses.

The extent of the misuse is laid out in a list generated by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. The punishment is left up to local jurisdictions, since the department says it has no power to mandate discipline beyond revoking access.

The department conducts monthly audits of the top 50 most active users, while also following up on agency requests and outside complaints. Bruce Gordon, a spokesman for the department, said his agency is developing a method of performing randomized audits.

"From our standpoint, any misuse is too much," Gordon said. "And that's why we audit the system and we work with local agencies to hold people accountable."

Varied cases

The Star Tribune filed more than 20 public records requests to learn more about the cases. Many cases involved workers querying friends and family, sometimes at their request, but others were less innocuous.

In August 2011, administrators in the state's Fourth Judicial District (Hennepin County) disciplined 25 employees for misusing DVS data -- 10 of them were suspended without pay; one was fired but then was allowed to resign instead.

Court administrator Mark Thompson said the lookups included friends' addresses for sending cards, pictures of high school classmates and occasionally a photograph of a defendant or lawyer to find them in the courtroom. "It's the kind of thing that was enough widespread that we had to re-educate the entire employment force here, and we did that," said Thompson, adding that they have found no problems since the discipline.

In February of last year, a West St. Paul police officer was given a three-day suspension -- two of which were stayed -- because he "wasted" more than 50 hours conducting unauthorized searches of the database, according to a discipline letter. A Department of Public Safety letter said the searches were for photos only. Lt. Brian Sturgeon said that the officer, John Reynolds, conducted the searches "out of boredom" and that Reynolds lost access for one year.

It's not just the metro area. Rock County fired child-support officer Janet Patten in May 2011 after she made nearly 4,000 photo queries over four months. The county administrator, Kyle Oldre, said the normal number of searches per month should have been about 50.

"She looked up friends and neighbors and co-workers and workers in other counties," Oldre said. "It was just people she knew. And she spent a ton of time doing it." A criminal investigation did not turn up any nefarious intent, but the county nonetheless sent out at least 3,000 data-breach letters in response to the findings.

Child-support employees in Carver County and Cottonwood County also received written reprimands for misuse, while another in Wright County was suspended.

In June 2012, Scott County 911 dispatch sergeant Dawn Ganske was confronted with allegations that she accessed an individual's DVS file that the Department of Public Safety was auditing.

"Before we got [a warning letter about DVS use], I did look up people that I probably shouldn't have looked up just for curiosity reasons," Ganske said, according to a transcript of her interview with internal affairs investigators. "I'm into astrology and my guess is, I mean, if I had to be honest about if I did it today, I would say ... it would be just to find out what day he was born."

This spring, the Department of Public Safety alerted the public after discovering that a Forest Lake car dealership employee had given his DVS login to a friend in the repossession business. The department estimated that the misuse could affect 3,700 Minnesotans.

Ramsey County Sheriff's Deputy Chris Dugger made nearly 2,000 DVS queries over two years and "many (if not most) were performed while he was off-duty and were clearly not work related," according to a complaint in his personnel file. Dugger admitted searching the records for Prince, friends, his ex-wife, co-workers and "members of the public."

Perhaps the most unusual case occurred in Redwood Falls last March, when an officer received a two-day suspension for using city computers while on duty to "create cartoons" of officers and deputies using DVS photographs.

'Widespread and pervasive'

Two recent court cases have raised allegations that the misuse of the database is commonplace. In a civil suit against about 140 officers and at least 16 jurisdictions for improper access of her file, former Eden Prairie and St. Paul police officer Anne Rasmusson's legal team wrote that the "extent of this illegal access appears to be widespread and pervasive throughout departments, and is a custom and practice."

When Minneapolis housing inspections director Tom Deegan, a 37-year city employee, was charged criminally last month for accessing DVS data without a business purpose, his attorney shot back that "over 40 city employees have done the same thing and have not been charged."

Jennifer Munt, a spokesman for AFSCME Local 5, a union that represents many public employees, said she has not observed more grievances related to DVS cases, though more employers are requesting audits of employee computers. "When grievances of this nature go to an arbitrator, knowledge of wrongdoing is key," Munt said. "In the arbitrators' eyes, it's the employer's responsibility" to make sure employees know what's allowed and what's not.

Eric Roper • 612-673-1732