A lawsuit filed Monday accuses an assortment of local governments, public officials, and law enforcement officers of illegally accessing hundreds of times the private data of a former Winona Post reporter and news editor. Goodview, Winona, and Winona County officials and/or officers, the suit alleges, used state-run driver's license databases to search Cynthya Porter's name, and view private information about her. Many of the searches, the suit says, corresponded to personal columns, stories about the criminal justice system, and reports on local controversies by the award-winning investigative reporter.
According to documents released by the state of Minnesota, Porter's private data was accessed approximately 500 times between 2003 and 2013. The suit names 11 local government agencies from across the state and top Minnesota Department of Public Safety (DPS) officials.
"These defendants are the windowpeepers of the electronic age," alleges the complaint, filed by Sonia Miller-Van Oort, Porter's attorney. The lawsuit names hundreds of "John and Jane Doe" officers or administrators and state agency workers, although individual government employees or officers are not specifically named. Because information provided by the accused agencies about the instances in which her license data was accessed does not provide the names of individuals who searched her records, the complaint does not specifically accuse any officers, including officers Porter may have socialized with over the years.
While she was never charged with crimes in Winona County or Goodview (with the exception of one traffic stop for a broken headlight), Winona County employees allegedly accessed Porter's private data 12 times and Goodview allegedly accessed Porter's private data 29 times. Several of those instances correlate to stories by Porter, including stories about the Winona County Sheriff's Department.
According to the complaint, the city of Winona had the highest number of accesses of Porter's data: 61 originating from at least ten different police officers, the suit alleges. Fewer than five parking tickets in Winona were the only times Porter and her attorney believe she could have been the subject of legitimate look-ups in Winona, according to the complaint.
Some of the instances of access were reportedly in connection to stolen vehicle complaints, the suit notes. Because Porter was a community volunteer and reporter at the Winona Post, "many of Winona's law enforcement officials know who Porter is, know she is not a criminal suspect, know that she is not a 'wanted' person by authorities, know that her car is not stolen, and know that there is no legitimate law enforcement reason to be accessing and obtaining her private information from her motor vehicle records," the complaint states.
Several similar lawsuits have been filed against the city of Winona within the past year. City leaders and police officials have generally declined to comment on the cases. A rash of such cases has erupted across the state in recent years. One Minnesota police officer was quoted as saying "every single cop in the state has done this, chiefs on down," the complaint notes.
Porter was never charged nor suspected of a crime in Brooklyn Park, but access of her private data by that municipality corresponds to the date of a column in the Winona Post featuring her head shot. In court documents, Porter stated that to the best of her knowledge she has never been in Caledonia, where her private data was also accessed.
Most of the misuse of databases involve female victims, noted Miller-Van Oort. She said it makes one wonder "why people would be looking up information on where a person lives, what they look like, what they drive — where they can be found, basically. It strikes a real sense of fear for one's safety."
Last summer, an offhand remark by an officer not well-known to Porter about her neighborhood being "safe" struck Porter as odd. After learning about the extent to which local officers were accessing her private data, she concluded the officer must have accessed her address, according to the complaint.
"This is another unfortunate and scary wakeup call for the types of abuse that are happening with our state databases, and it should be concerning to all of us, women and [men], as to what the potential threats to our safety are," Miller-Van Oort commented.
Porter is not the first reporter to be the subject of searches, seemingly because of her involvement with the media, Miller-Van Oort noted.
By federal law, law enforcement officers may only access driver's license databases for a legitimate law enforcement purpose. The law allows for $2,500 in damages per illegal access of private data. If the suit succeeds, the governments and other defendants may be fined over $300,000 in addition to other damages and legal fees. All of the fines to governments are paid by insurance.
Through the database, officers and non-law enforcement government personnel are able to access a citizen's home address, date of birth, height, weight, driver's license identification number, organ donor information, and could retrieve Social Security information.