Highway Trooper Suing Miami Police Dept. For Repeatedly Accessing Her Personal Data After She Pulled Over One Of Its Officers For Speeding
from the more-hot-cop-on-cop-action! dept
The blue line that keeps bad cops employed and divides law enforcement officers (LEO) from so-called civilians is flexible enough to turn cops against fellow members of the LEO community. A Florida Highway Patrol officer is suing the Miami Police Dept. its officers’ actions after she pulled over one of them for speeding in 2011.
Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Donna Jane Watts was on routine patrol early one morning when a Miami police car whizzed past at speeds that would eventually top 120 mph. Even with her blue lights flashing and siren blaring, it took Watts more than seven minutes to pull the speeder over.
Not certain who was behind the wheel, she approached the car warily, with gun drawn, according to video from her cruiser’s dashboard camera. “Put your hands out of the window! Right now!” she yelled. It turned out the driver was Miami Police Department officer Fausto Lopez, in full uniform. Watts holstered her gun but still handcuffed him and took his weapon.
The question that routinely follows in this sort of situation (“Where’s the fire?” or variations thereof) was greeted with this response:
“I apologize,” Lopez said, explaining that he was late for an off-duty job.
120 mph. In a cop car. On the way to a moonlighting shift. And it took seven minutes for the off-duty officer to pull over, which would indicate he probably didn’t feel the lights and sirens were for him for at least five of those minutes. (No one pulls over a cop car.)
The end result was the firing of Fausto Lopez. That was the end of the story for him, but Watts’ was just beginning. Over the next several weeks, she was subjected to many forms of harassment from Miami police officers, ranging from the nearly-innocuous (the old pizza delivery standby) to the more frightening (unfamiliar cars and police cruisers parked outside her house). Suspecting this concerted harassment effort had spread further than her phone and neighborhood, she requested details on any access of her personal records from the Dept. of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.
It turned out she was right: over a three-month period, at least 88 law enforcement officers from 25 different agencies accessed Watts’ driver’s license information more than 200 times, according to her lawyer.
Armed with this knowledge, Watts is now suing the Miami Police Dept. (and some individual officers) for violating her privacy by abusing their access to the DHSMV database. If she’s successful, the payoff won’t be cheap. Federal law provides for a $2,500 penalty per violation, which means the Miami PD could be on the hook for over a half-million dollars.
The lawsuit notes that some slaps on the wrist were handed out by Miami PD brass once this illegal access was uncovered.
According to court documents, most of the individual officers named in Watts’ lawsuit did face some disciplinary action, usually a written reprimand.
But lawyers for the agencies named in the suit are claiming the officers did nothing wrong — at least as far as they feel the law goes. According to them, officers can only be held responsible for improper access if they sell the information.
Not so, says the DOJ, which stated what should have been obvious in its own filing:
“There is value in drivers’ information and a market for it,” the Justice Department lawyers said. “What the defendants fail to recognize is that there is value in drivers’ information whether or not it is actually sold.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, law enforcement agencies are pushing back against this mandatory $2,500 fine.
Bill Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Police Agencies, said law enforcement officials are concerned that lawyers are using the law to target individual officers who access the information. He noted that the $2,500 penalty per violation can add up quickly.
“In our view, it was not what the federal law was enacted to counteract,” Johnson said. “I think it would be unfair and outside the scope of the legislation to think individuals would get whacked like that.”
Right. There’s that approach. Or there’s fixing the problem. If LEOs (and other government employees) can’t keep themselves from accessing a database full of sensitive information for improper reasons, then the hammer should fall on those accessing the data and their department. Nothing stings more than a massive amount of fees, even if, in most cases, it’s the taxpayers who are being docked, rather than the officers (and their supervisors) themselves.
There are tons of ways to abuse this access and doing it for financial gain will always be only a small fraction of the improper access. This fine is in place to help ensure accountability — and there’s a national police organization actively trying to undermine this small deterrent. If it succeeds, it will only increase the number of violations and allow those behind the thin blue line to harass citizens — and cops who won’t fall in line — without fear of serious reprisal.