Eighteen Wabasha County residents, including a state lawmaker, filed a lawsuit Thursday alleging that law enforcement and government officials have illegally accessed their driver's license data for political purposes.
The plaintiffs include several current or former Wabasha County commissioners and other citizens who have attended county board meetings or written letters to the editor.
Wabasha County and dozens of other state and local government agencies are named in the lawsuit.
The group's attorney, Erick Kaardal, said the lawsuit came about after the group filed two other lawsuits in the county. One of the lawsuits involves a driver diversion program the group opposes, citing an opinion by the state Attorney General's Office that the program violates state law.
Law enforcement officials, courts personnel and many other government employees have access to the driver's license database kept by the Department of Public Safety. They are only allowed to use it for certain purposes, such as conducting investigations or verifying licenses.
According to the driver's license data lawsuit, the individuals' personal data such as addresses, photos, and physical descriptions were illegally accessed at least 600 times.
The look-ups often occurred after the individuals announced their candidacy, attended a public hearing or wrote a letter to the editor in the local newspaper, Kaardal said.
"No one wants this to happen to them," Kaardal said. "Who's going to speak out at a public hearing or write a letter to the editor?"
Kaardal said the people he represents come from different political parties but agree certain reforms are needed in the county.
Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, said he and his family's data was accessed 133 times, including 95 instances in which his data was pinged.
"Government's abuse of the private personal data of citizens engaged in participation in their own government is stunning," he said.
Wabasha County Attorney James Nordstrom said he hadn't yet seen the lawsuit and had no immediate comment. Officials at the Department of Public Safety, which is also named, said they don't comment on pending litigation.
Some of the plaintiffs allege they were mistreated by government officials in a public setting, but Kaardal said he's continuing to investigate whether the data was used for identity theft or other purposes.
The lawsuit was filed in federal court and cites the Driver's Privacy Protection Act, which allows for $2,500 in damages for each violation. Kaardal said the damages in this case would add up to more than $1.5 million.
Earlier this year, state Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles found that misuse of the database was widespread and warned that privacy lawsuits could be costly for the state.
A suit stemming from a former Department of Natural Resources employee's alleged misuse of the database is still pending. The DNR has said the employee inappropriately accessed the records of 5,000 people, 90 percent of whom were women.
"The problem is going to persist until there's more concern both at the state level, and then I think there have to be consequences at the street level too," said Larry Fett, an attorney whose firm has filed more than a dozen such actions, including the DNR suit.
The Department of Public Safety is doing more audits to find out if people are being improperly targeted, but more needs to be done, Fett said.
"It can't just be that at the top people are saying you shouldn't do this," he added. "That message has to get out and it has to be enforced and typically we react to consequences."
Nobles has recommended better monitoring of the database using software that helps track questionable searches
He said attitudes have changed since his report and after the DNR employee faced consequences for improperly using the database.
"These developments are having an impact," he said. "As these lawsuits keep being filed, I just think the message is being delivered stronger and stronger that we have to solve this problem."