MANKATO — Several cities and counties in the Mankato area have been named as defendants in one of the latest lawsuits accusing public employees of abusing their access to driver's license information through a state database.
The lawsuit, filed by Twin Cities Fox 9 Morning News anchor Alix Kendall, claims her license information was accessed more than 3,800 times during a 10-year period through the Minnesota Department of Public Safety's Driver and Vehicle Services database.
One of Kendall's attorneys, Jon Strauss of the Sapientia Law Group, speculated that many of the searches were the result of curiosity. At this point Strauss only knows what computers were used to access the information, not who was using the computer at the time.
"She was shocked and disgusted to learn she had been looked up more than 3,000 times," Strauss said. "We believe this is the largest data breach in Minnesota history. Ironically, these people have been snooping into her life, but we can't find out who they were until we start gathering discovery information."
Information that can be obtained through the DVS system includes current and former addresses, current and former driver's license photographs, weight, height and, possibly, Social Security and medical information, Strauss said. The filing also points out that Kendall's information was searched by name, not by her license plate numbers. So the searches didn't include police officers doing random traffic searches for stolen vehicles or people with arrest warrants.
Kendall is also claiming the individuals searching her name could find out her birth name, which she legally changed and is attempting to keep secret. However, that name can easily be found through a court search that is available to the general public on the Internet and in Minnesota courthouses.
A state audit completed last year found the DVS database is often searched by law enforcement officers for no legal reason. That has raised questions about whether that is a violation of federal law. There also have been dozens of lawsuits filed against public agencies by people claiming their driver's license information was being searched by public employees for no legal reason.
Former Minnesota Department of Natural Resources employee John Hunt, 49, entered an Alford plea to a criminal charge of misconduct by a public employee earlier this week in Ramsey County District Court. He was charged after he was accused of illegally searching the database about 19,000 times during a five-year period. Most of the people he searched were women and included police officers, celebrities and politicians. The Alford plea allowed him to maintain his innocence while saying there is enough evidence for a jury to find him guilty.
Kendall's lawsuit claims her name was searched by police officers, sheriff's deputies and other public employees from agencies all over the state. A few examples from the Mankato area include 23 searches by the Blue Earth County Sheriff's Department, three searches by the Blue Earth County probation office, two searches by the Mankato Department of Public Safety, five searches by the Lake Crystal Police Department, 11 searches by the Le Sueur County Sheriff's Department, seven searches by the Le Sueur Police Department and eight searches by the New Ulm Police Department.
Todd Miller, Mankato Department of Public Safety director, said his employees receive training on how the database should be used. Those polices don't allow employees to look up personal information about people for no reason, he said. There have been no violations he's aware of since he took over as director in 2010.
"We expect they will utilize that information properly," Miller said.
The League of Minnesota Cities maintains a legal insurance trust for almost all of the cities named in Kendall's lawsuit and other lawsuits. Darin Richardson, the league's senior claims supervisor, said the league is dealing with 1,164 claims made by 77 individuals against 217 cities or other trust members. That does not include claims against counties and state agencies. Mankato has been named in at least two other lawsuits, Richardson said.
The cities he is defending believe the lawsuits should be dismissed and they are against any changes to access rules for the DVS database. Access changes have been discussed by state legislators who said they are concerned about snooping and other privacy violations by people using the information for reasons that aren't related to law enforcement.
"This is a critical tool for police officers to do police work," Richardson said. "The vast majority of searches are for legitimate police purposes. In order for police to do their job, they need the information timely and accurately. That's our position."
Kendall's lawsuit is seeking more than $75,000 in damages. That lawsuit and others handled by Sapientia Law Group are also being used to stop illegal access to license data, Strauss said.
"Primarily, we want this to stop," Strauss said. "We want news reporters to be able to go about their work without law enforcement officers being electronic peeping Toms."