Settlement reached in sheriff's dept. lawsuit
A $29,000 settlement, plus legal fees, which Pine County Attorney John Carlson stated could reach over $100,000, was reached in a lawsuit regarding former Pine County Sheriff’s Department employee Anne Rasmusson and four Pine County employees. In a 2012 lawsuit, the plaintiff, Rasmusson, alleged that four Pine County Sheriff’s Department employees had violated her right to privacy by unlawfully accessing her driver’s license information through law enforcement access with no legal reason for the look-up. It was determined the unlawful look-ups violate the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act (DPPA). Pine County will pay a $2,500 deductible to the county's insurance company for the settlement amount.
The unlawful look-ups of Rasmusson’s driver’s license began, according to an article in Citypages.com, after Rasmusson took a medical retirement caused by an injury working as a police officer for the Eden Prairie Police Department. In the City Pages article she alleged that while reconnecting with a law enforcement academy friend, he mentioned that he and his partner had looked up her driver’s license photo on the computer in their squad car and commented that she looked great. Rasmusson then allegedly began getting unsolicited dating offers from policemen. In another event, Rasmusson alleged that a man she stopped seeing continued to call and drive past her house and stated to Rasmusson that another police officer had “filled him in” on her past, her dating life and kind of car she was driving.
She also claimed that while at the gym, she overheard police officers who frequented the gym talking about what she looked like before losing weight, even though she hadn’t met them until after she lost her weight. According to the story, she moved away from Lakeville, where she had been living, to a 160-acre bungalow far away from the city where she would later find employment with the Pine County Sheriff’s Department. To the City Pages reporter Rasmusson stated, “I just wanted some privacy. I didn’t know what more to do.”
After continued harassment and a feeling of paranoia, Rasmusson, according to the article, contacted the Department of Public Safety Data Practices coordinator to find out if people had been accessing her private data. The coordinator told her that her private data was accessed over and over by police officers all across the state going back to 2007. After that, each of the look-ups would be investigated. It was discovered that a large number of police officers would look up Rasmusson’s photo for the reason of comparing old pictures to new ones to see if there was plastic surgery done.
In all, 104 officers in 18 different agencies across the state accessed her data over 400 times. The story of the lawsuits and the unlawful look-ups then made national news. According to one national news article, Rasmusson has won over $1 million in lawsuits regarding the data look-up, including close to $400,000 each from both the city of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
The DPPA established in 1994 states, “A state Department of Motor Vehicles, and any officer, employee, or contractor, thereof, shall not knowingly disclose or otherwise make available to any person or entity personal information about any individual obtained by the department in connection with a motor vehicle record.” And according to the act’s civil action options, the act states, “A person who knowingly obtains, discloses or uses personal information, from a motor vehicle record, for a purpose not permitted under this chapter shall be liable to the individual to whom the information pertains, who may bring a civil action in a U.S. District Court. The court is allowed to award $2,500 for each case.”
According to epic.org (Electronic Privacy Information Center), DPPA was established in response to a series of abuses of drivers’ personal information held by the government. The 1989 death of actress Rebecca Schaeffer was a prominent example of such abuse. In her case, an obsessed fan was able to obtain her address through her California motor vehicle record. The fan used her information to stalk and kill her.
County Attorney Carlson stated during the board meeting, “All of the employees from the sheriff’s department have access to license information, but it is improper to look someone up out of curiosity. This all would be easily fixed if a person logged in and wanted to run a name and they type in reason for wanting information. People are doing it everywhere. This law firm will keep going because they get their money. This claim was in Pine and Chisago counties. Both counties need to do better in training and documenting these things.”
“The practice of people looking up driver’s licenses for no good reason needs to end,” he added.
County Commissioner Steve Hallan of Pine City asked, “At some point, John, when people have been trained and someone goes against policy, when will the person that does the wrong deed be held responsible and not the agency they work for?”
“Do we do a good job in this county to know that people know the rules? Probably not. Everyone in my office has to log on the reason and it would be good if the sheriff’s department would do the same,” Carlson said.
Pine County Sheriff Robin Cole responded, “This lawsuit is over one look-up and we haven’t had any since.”
Attorney Carlson replied, “That is not true. We have had a couple former dispatchers.”
Cole added that all new employees cannot get access to the system without going through the training required by the state. “Anne Rasmusson was the first one on the ride and the ride is ending because the municipalities around the state can’t afford it,” stated Cole.
“There is a long back story but I won’t say what it is because these folks are sitting here typing it all out. We have other ones downstairs that are bubbling here, but legislators are looking at putting an end to it. The state owns and operates the system and it is their responsibility to monitor the lookups,” added Cole.
County Commissioner Steve Chaffee of Hinckley asked Cole, “Do you have training for your employees?”
Cole responded, “The deputies that were involved in the 2011 case, when were they trained? We have no record of it.”
Discipline has varied within the enforcement agencies involved in the lawsuit from termination, suspension and demotion to no discipline. Cole said all involved employees in Pine County have been gone for at least three years, with most incidents happening before April 2011.