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.

Filed Under: , , ,

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “Highway Trooper Suing Miami Police Dept. For Repeatedly Accessing Her Personal Data After She Pulled Over One Of Its Officers For Speeding”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
Anonymous Coward says:

She stepped over the Blue Line, and got harassed for doing so. This is further proof if individuals have access to personal data, human nature dictates that personal information will be abused.

Martin Luther King Jr, Trooper Watts, or average Joe. It doesn’t matter who you are. If you piss someone in authority off, ie the President or Vice President of the United States or local Law Enforcement Thugs, your logged matadata and personal information, plus all your contacts’ information, will end up getting searched without an individualized search warrant. Everything about us has already been seized, ‘logged’, on a daily basis.

Trooper Watts, is lucky she knows people with access to the DMV database. Most citizens would have no idea how often their personal information is searched, or as the establishment likes to call searching though unconstitutionally seized information. They “query” your personal information and call records. I also read your prescription medication records get “queried” without a warrant, also.

zip says:

This is the sort of thing that always happens to honest cops who dare to apply the law to their fellow comrades in law enforcement. It’s the fear of retaliation that keeps the good cops silent about police abuses — and even outright criminal behavior. Trooper Donna Jane Watts is either very brave or very ignorant.

On a sidenote, I bet that Tim Cushing has had his record pulled more than a few times for daring to expose corrupt and abusive cops. These are not the kind of people you want to have consider you their enemy.

Anonymous Coward says:

She needs to re-check the access records.
Since she issued her lawsuit, I can bet there have been dozens if not hundreds more ‘incidents”.
If she’s reading this, I also STRONGLY recommend that she gets the access checked for her partners/family members (parents, grandparents) and her employers, as the Miami PD will have been going through everything they could to try to blackmail her into dropping the suit.
They’re well-known for going after employers/previous employers/family members and blackmailing/harassing them when direct harassment doesn’t work.

Anonymous Coward says:

From the referenced article: “NAPO is lobbying Congress to remove the automatic $2,500 penalty and change the law so that a violation could only occur if there was “specific intent to secure an economic benefit,” according to the organization’s documents.”

Yep, because an “economic benefit” would be truly bad whereas the cheap thrill of unchecked power and a free chance to engage in some extra-curricular bullying and harassment brings on orgasmic warm fuzzies.

Ninja (profile) says:

It *should* be easy to point those who accessed her database during that period. All of them should be fired. And if the ones engaged in the harassment (the pizza ‘prank’ and the patrol car parked outside her home among others) can be identified then they should be fired too. Good cops would applaud her attitude, not the contrary. These need to be purged. And it seems there are examples of places where they fired a massive number of cops and things got better to the people afterwards. Eventually they were replaced.

Geno0wl (profile) says:

I automatic Fine should be removed

I honestly believe it is not in the tax payer’s best interest to automatically fine the Department for misuse of the database by cops. Think of the abuse one cop could do if they purposefully tried to get the department fined.
No, the REAL answer is to automatically fine the OFFICERS directly who willfully pull somebody’s records.
Most of those cops who get said written reprimand won’t care, but if you suddenly slap them with a $2.5-5k fine coming directly out of THEIR pockets…that is wake up call that they will remember and share back around to others.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: I automatic Fine should be removed

Fine them both.

I honestly think that it is in the public’s best interest to fine the agencies for their inability to control their employees as well as the employees themselves. Yes, taxpayers ultimately pay it — that’s the point. The buck stops with us. If we keep having to waste our tax money paying fines, maybe we’d put more pressure on these agencies to start behaving better.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: I automatic Fine should be removed

While go the extra mile and punish the people for the actions of the corrupt cops/system, when you can hit the guilty party directly where it hurts, their wallets, and solve the problem much quicker?

You can be sure that if a cop knew they’d be personally paying that $2,500 per violation fine, abuses of the system would be incredibly rare(assuming it was actually enforced anyway).

Richard G says:

Systematic harassment in Florida

Like FHP Trooper Donna Watts, I have been systematically harassed by local law enforcement in Florida. But my harassment has lasted over five years, has involved many more bizarre incidents, and has occurred for different reasons. The common thread is organized harassment by a gang of bullies who, while acting as such, are “law enforcement” officers in name only. I had to close my law office in 2012 due to continued harassment, hacking of my personal and office’s internet access, including my email accounts, iphone. As a result, my home of over 20 years is now in foreclosure. I dated a divorce client in 2003 (and until 2011) who was the wife of a high ranking member of the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office. I have been smeared as a pedophile and child molester, although local law enforcement deny even harassing me. The smear is sub-surface. Just days after my ex-girlfriend and I started dating in 2003, I was harassed by PCSO detective cars parked in front of my house – illegal, but understandable. But I wasn’t harassed for five years (2008) – by law enforcement vehicles daily for almost two years. This occurred just days after a relationship-related event. The vehicular harassment subsided, then I began getting harassed by individuals in everyday places, which continues. I referred to this as “psychological lynching” in my color of law complaint filed with the Justice Department and FBI last year. (As expected, my complaint wasn’t investigated. I read that in 2009, for example, there were only 386 investigations, although more than 10,000 complaints were filed). I later read articles online which referred to my “psychological lynching” as community mobbing or bullying, group stalking, etc. The problem is that many of the articles allege mind reading, microwave and electromagnetic usage, etc. which I dismiss, of course. (Whether they were written by delusional persons, as disinformation, or other reason, I don’t know). If you have the time and interest, you can read my website “(My Five Years of) Systematic Police Harassment in Pinellas County, Florida.”

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...