Driver's License Privacy Lawsuit Filed Against Mendota Heights and Former Police Officer

June 10, 2018 10:31 PM

We all value our privacy.

That is why a group of people who claim their civil rights were violated, has filed a lawsuit in federal court. The court case contends both the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act, along with the Congressionally approved Driver's Privacy Protection Act was abused.

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RELATED: Mendota Heights Police Officer Under 2nd Investigation in Past 2 Years

The 40-page suit names the city of Mendota Heights and one of its former officers, Mike Shepard, for tapping into restricted information in the state's driver's license database. Jon Strauss is an attorney with the Sapientia Law Group, which filed this suit.

"This matters because we all care about privacy," he said.

The Driver Vehicle Services site is overseen by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. More than three million Minnesotans have a driver's license on file. The suit contends that Shepard, while on the Mendota Heights police force, broke the law by tapping into one-time City Councilman Mike Povolny's record for personal reasons instead of law enforcement purposes.  Plus, Povolny claims Shepard trolled the database, which included Povolny's home address, and to peek at his wife and daughter's data too.

"Clearly these are people that Shepard had some personal interest in, and we believe the main driving point is they were all looked up and there is no permissible reason to do so," Strauss said. 

The legal action alleges Shepard snooped on a wide range of people, starting with a love interest, to a reserve police officer, a firefighter, police chief, elected officials, and the city administrator.

According to the suit, a 2016 audit done by Mendota Heights uncovered the improper and familiar log-ins. 

In a city document, Police Chief Kelly McCarthy stated:

There is no reasonable officer in 2016 who doesn't understand that inappropriate access of the DVS system is a major infraction.

Records show in 2009, Shepard was disciplined and coached by the department for improper accesses.

"Yet, Mendota Heights continued to let him have access to the system and obviously wasn't monitoring enough," Strauss said.

RELATED: Mendota Heights Police Officer Placed on Paid Administrative Leave 

A complaint and resulting investigation led to a 30-day suspension in March 2017. In August 2017, Shepard was put on paid leave for a different issue. In November, Shepard resigned, citing a work-related injury. He'd been on the force from 2006-2017. 

Any information about complaints against government employees in Minnesota becomes public information if he or she is disciplined. Given that he resigned, that terminated all investigations.

Mark McNeill, the City Administrator, issued a statement in response to questions about the suit:

The matter has been referred to the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust, which has assigned an attorney to represent the city. As this concerns pending litigation, the city has no comment.

In 2014, the Minnesota Department of Public Safety changed the way law enforcement officers access driver's license information because of lawsuits and the findings of a state audit. The Public Safety Commissioner at the time said the agency would cut back on inappropriate data access. The Bureau of Criminal Apprehension now requires any law enforcement personnel with access to this data, to complete new training and certification. The BCA also implemented strict monitoring procedures. 

In 1994, Congress passed the Driver's Privacy Protection Act. The state oversees the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act. 

Credits

Beth McDonough

Copyright 2018 - KSTP-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company

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