“Female Cop Gets $1 Million After Colleagues Trolled Database to Peek at Her Pic”

by Walter Olson on November 19, 2012

No, these were not naughty pictures, they were driver’s license headshots. “The city’s liability could have been upwards of $565,000 because the statute provides $2,500 to be assessed per each unlawful look-up of the database, and we had 226 look-ups,” City Attorney Sara Grewing [of St. Paul, Minn.] told the Pioneer Press. “So we were looking at $565,000 plus attorney’s fees, if we were found liable.” St. Paul was one of several municipalities that settled with Anne Marie Rasmusson, whose picture fellow officers often looked up without proper authority in violation of a 1994 enactment called the federal Drivers Privacy Protection Act. [Kim Zetter, Wired "Threat Level"; CityPages.]

{ 15 comments }

1 RogerX 11.19.12 at 11:07 am

“Rasmusson first became aware that other officers were abusing the database to look her up when a former police academy colleague mentioned to her in 2009 that she looked great and that he and his partner had used their squad car computer to view her driver’s license photo.” … “Minneapolis hasn’t disciplined any of the 24 officers who looked up Rasmusson’s record, and St. Paul absolved four of its officers and was still considering discipline for 38 others under investigation.”

The costs are high to the taxpayers, but it sounds like there have been no disincentives to having this behavior again in the future. The law may be ridiculous or not– $2,500 plus legal fees per incident seems like a good disincentive– but it only works if you make the offender pay. The fact that this is clearly inappropriate workplace conduct only makes the lack of discipline more outrageous.

2 Ron Miller 11.19.12 at 12:16 pm

Really Roger. What am I missing here? Her driver’s licence photo? I can see the police department not wanting to make a federal case out of it. It is what it is but no one was contemplating this when that law was written. It is an inane application and this police officer should be ashamed of taking advantage of it the way she has.

3 Curmudgeonly Ex-Clerk 11.19.12 at 2:39 pm

The CityPages story adds a great deal more detail to this story.

Among other things, more than 100 law enforcement officers in 19 different agencies accessed her record; these look-ups generally appear to have post-dated her own police employment (meaning that cops were not looking up a “colleague”); more than one officer who looked her up apparently made contact with her; in multiple instances, the unsolicited contact was a romantic solicitation.

It strikes me as a pretty clear violation of her privacy, and a shocking abuse of law enforcement resources. So the damages do not bother me here. What’s to keep officers from doing this to anyone they care to other than damages of this magnitude? Certainly not internal discipline; it is pretty clear from the CityPages story that minimal discipline has been meted out to most of the offending officers thus far.

4 Ron Miller 11.19.12 at 4:18 pm

A romantic solicitation from one police officer to another based on a driver’s license picture? The inhumanity.

5 boblipton 11.19.12 at 4:21 pm

Yes, it is an abuse. However, the people who pay the costs will be the city, which means the tax payers and the people who will suffer from poor city services as a result. The people who abused her privacy will not.

Bob

6 Walter Olson 11.19.12 at 4:26 pm

I suspect Ron speaks as one who knows that getting $1 million is not necessarily a legal walk in the park even for many persons who have suffered fairly gruesome physical injuries.

7 Curmudgeonly Ex-Clerk 11.19.12 at 11:48 pm

Ron:

I think you discount how corrosive this sort of abuse of authority is to respect for the law and how dangerous it is to foster a law enforcement culture in which those supposedly protecting and serving are permitted to operate as if the rules do not apply to them. Law enforcement are not infrequently called on to make life-and-death decisions; toleration of loose professional ethics is going to have real consequences. Without real damages, there is no deterrent for this misconduct; without the deterrent you’ll get more of the same and worse.

Walter:

Regarding gruesome physical injuries, I think it is pretty hard to meaningfully compare those cases with this incident. I practice products liability personal injury on the defense side, and, to grossly generalize, the difficulty in getting damages in personal injury cases has more to do with the quality of proof on oft-complicated issues like medical causation and ambiguities as to fault or responsibility, and similar issues. In short, there tends to be serious disputes about whether or to what extent a defendant is liable for said “gruesome physical injuries.” Here, in contrast, very little discovery already shows that there’s no question about liability for the conduct in question.

Perhaps, you simply think that the damages should be lower regardless. I’m open to that possibility; I’m not necessarily convinced that the statutory damage model at issue here is beyond criticism. But, for the reasons articulated in response to Ron above, I’m not particularly bothered by the damages in this particular case. I want to see a very large deterrent in instances like this, both because of the consequences likely to flow from permissiveness and because I think this sort of misconduct generally avoids detection and, therefore, cannot be adequately addressed on a case-by-case basis in the way that litigation involving physical injuries can.

Bob:

If there is a large enough deterrent, the actual wrongdoers will be punished in the end, in the sense that large damages will motivate the relevant governmental authorities to properly train their employees, ensure that that the training is adhered to, and eliminate those employees who fail to do so. Taken to its logical conclusion, your argument would amount to a sort-of super soverign immunity that eliminates all governmental liability in order ton protect the taxpayers’ pocketbook. Sovereign immunity already seems plenty robust to me. But perhaps I misunderstand the thrust of your comment.

8 RogerX 11.20.12 at 1:36 am

Walter – what’s your take? Should the law be changed or revoked? Should the penalties be criminal against the perpetrator, as opposed to civil against the agency repsonsible? I’m certainly not saying that people should get paid for having their drivers license pic looked at, but if cops are looking her up with no legit cause, passing ludrid emails, and making passes at this woman, they should be disciplined “up to and including termination,” as the saying goes. I worked at a bank, and tellers looking up celebs/family members’ accounts for non-business purposes were terminated – and they were warned of such policies at hire time. It seems the law is there to ensure privacy violations aren’t committed by government employees, but it instead pays lawyers and victims out of taxpayers’ pockets.

9 RogerX 11.20.12 at 1:43 am

“Mr. Miller is also a member of the Million Dollar Advocates Forum, a prestigious group of trial lawyers in the United States with membership limited to attorneys who have won million and multi-million dollar verdicts, awards and settlements.”

You’ve won millions as a personal injury lawyer, but this article is about collecting under a law in effect to prevent abuse of power. So what’s the angle in slamming me for suggesting people shouldn’t be looking up DL info (physical attributes, address, phone, pictures) and harassing someone when it’s clearly not part of their job?

Also, you may want to consider a new web designer for a refresh.

10 Mike 11.20.12 at 10:54 am

Re RogerX, I agree that the employees (in this case cops) should be suspended without pay, at the very least. I worked at an IRS facility where it came to the attention of management that some employees had for non-work related reasons accessed the tax/income information for some celebrities and other public figures. It was announced that any employee who did that, whether out of idle curiosity or as part of some scheme, would be arrested in the facility and taken out in veiw of the other employees.
Problem solved. No more unauthorized access.

11 mike 11.20.12 at 1:06 pm

So a lot of police officers looked at her driver license picture (she probably has better pictures on her facebook page), and one or more cops “asked her out” (apparently she is nice looking, and thus she probably gets asked out every time she goes to the grocery store)

And for all this “torture”, she gets $1,000,000 in tax payer money!!!

Beyond stupid.

12 AMcA 11.20.12 at 4:17 pm

Why is it the egalitarian left is so enamored of giving vast sums (in this case, roughly 11 years worth of average wages, if my memory is correct) for trifling harms, and then backing it up with awards of fees that put plaintiffs’ lawyers firmly and irrevocably into the 1%?

Does it not bother anyone on the egalitarian left that invariably this money winds up coming out of the taxpayers’ hides?

13 gitarcarver 11.20.12 at 6:42 pm

mike,

Beyond stupid.

If you mean it is “beyond stupid” that the tax payers are on the hook for the illegal actions of law enforcement officers, I agree. The taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay this – the officers should.

All of the officers apparently had training that told them that looking up a person’s information without an investigative reason is against the law. The database which the officers used has a warning on the login screen telling them it was against Federal and State law to look up a person’s information without an investigative reason.

This was not an accident by some well intentioned cops. This was a blatant disregard for the law.

Law abiding citizens should not have to pay for the illegal actions of cops who don’t obey the law. The fine for the offense is $2,500 which is not so high or outlandish that it would force the cops into bankruptcy.

As for those who think this is akin to being approached in a bar or something, the woman received a call from an ex boyfriend after she had moved from the area. The boyfriend had gotten the information from a policeman friend who looked it up for him. There is no correlation to being approached in a bar and turning someone down and having your name and address available to people.

Take the money from the cops – not the taxpayer.

14 Bumper 11.20.12 at 8:10 pm

This is pure unmitigated B$. So some cops looked up her driver’s license picture. Punish the cops, fire ‘em, suspend ‘em, spank ‘em. Tell the broad show me the damages; oh, there are none; oh, there are more revealing pictures of you already up on the internet. Take a hike.

A half a mil to defend this case, only if you are incompetent or your hourlies are higher than BO’a ego.

15 Ron Miller 11.21.12 at 11:00 am

RogerX: I think my point is what Walter suggested above. I have clients whose lives are destroyed from physical injuries that don’t get a $1 million. So does it bother me she is getting that because someone looked at her driver’s license picture? Yes it does. I think it is silly and I don’t think it is a huge invasion of privacy. I would be willing to post my driver’s license picture online if someone made me an offer over $1.50 (negotiable).

My website could use a better design, Roger? Geez, that is the understatement of the day. It looks like it was built in 1995. You have me there.

To paraphrase Walter, when we jam cases into a serious victim mold that does not fit, we not only do a serious disservice to genuine victims, but also cause listeners to tune out our voices when we call attention to the real victims. Jurors that read about this woman getting a million bucks are walk in rolling their eyes about the system when they are impaneled for one of my juries.

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