Wabasha and Goodhue counties are two of 79 local government and law enforcement agencies around the state accused of illegally accessing citizens' driver's license information, including that of state Rep. Steve Drazkowski and Wabasha County commissioners.
Details of the alleged snooping came to light in a lawsuit filed Thursday in U.S. District Court. The 18 plaintiffs listed in the complaint allege the accused agencies of violating the federal Driver's Privacy Protection Act, or DPPA, as well as Minnesota common law against invasions of privacy.
The suit alleges the license lookups, or "pings," were politically motivated, specifically targeting members of a citizen group active in Wabasha County government.
"The plaintiffs' protected private driver's license records were illegally targeted at least 600 times since April 18, 2003," according to a statement by attorney Erick Kaardal. "These illegal accesses have been constant and targeted against a citizen group, including elected officials, who politically participate together in Wabasha County government."
Kaardal points to the timing of the pings, obtained through an audit of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety and Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, as proof that plaintiffs were singled out for political reasons.
Defendants are accused of pinging the records of Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, during four election campaigns between 2007 and 2012. Wabasha County commissioners Dave Harms and Deb Roschen also had their information accessed in 2010 election campaigns, as did former Commissioner Merl Norman in 2012, according to court documents.
"Government's abuse of the private personal data of citizens engaged in participation in their own government is stunning. It is the role of government to carry out the law, not to violate the law," Drazkowski said in a statement, adding that his wife and daughter also were pinged by authorities.
"These flagrant violations of law by the people we entrust with it are an abusive exercise of power," he said.
Additionally, the suit alleges plaintiffs were pinged when letters were published in the newspaper and after attending board meetings between 2009 and 2013.
The citizen group included in the suit was involved in two recent civil lawsuits against Wabasha County, accusing officials of improperly organizing a study committee and accusing the Wabasha County Sheriff's Office of illegally diverting traffic violation fees to the county through an unauthorized drivers' safety school. Those cases are ongoing.
The suit also includes the Department of Public Safety, which maintains Minnesota driving records, for not protecting the information.
Driver's license data includes date of birth, Social Security number, license photos and other health and disability information.
Federal law allows for a minimum $2,500 fine for each DPPA violation, and constitutes an illegal search under the Fourth Amendment.
Plaintiffs will seek a jury trial to collect damages in excess of $1 million, as well as punitive damages and compensation for attorney's fees.
Records show Goodhue County, situated just north of Wabasha County, illegally accessed plaintiff's information, but it is unclear if the pings were politically motivated, according to the complaint.
Goodhue County Commissioner Ron Allen said it would be "totally inappropriate" for county law enforcement to look up license information without first stopping that person in the line of duty.
"This is flat wrong and an abuse of power," Allen said, adding that he now wonders how many times he and fellow Goodhue County commissioners may have similarly been pinged.
Allen said he plans to bring the topic up at a County Board meeting 9 a.m. Tuesday.