Precinct 333

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Sheriff Uses Driver's License Records To Track Down Critic

Imagine this scenario – you write a letter to the editor of a local newspaper. In the letter, you criticize an elected law enforcement official. A short time later, you receive a letter in response from the official. How did he locate your address? That’s simple – he ran your name through the state Driver’s License database.

Orange County Sheriff Kevin Beary had his aides use the records to get the address of Alice Gawronski so he could send her a scathing letter, which some say violated federal privacy law. It is illegal to access a driver's license database to obtain personal information, except for clear law-enforcement purposes, under the Driver's Privacy Protection Act of 1994.

"I recently read your slanderous remarks about the Orange County Sheriff's Office in the Orlando Sentinel," Beary wrote Gawronski on March 23. "It is unfortunate that people ridicule others without arming themselves with the facts before they slander a law enforcement agency or individual."

Gawronski said, "I thought I was exercising my First Amendment right of free speech -- expressing an opinion in an open forum about a paid public official." She considered Beary's letter a form of intimidation.

Violators of the driver's privacy act can be sued in U.S. District Court for damages of at least $2,500, punitive damages, attorney's fees and all other relief the court determines to be appropriate.

"If I were her, I'd sue and get him in front of a jury. He'd probably get laughed out of the courtroom," said Chris Hoofnagle, the senior counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "This is the most common problem with surveillance -- who's watching the watchers."

Beary claims that responding to a “citizen concern” is part of his duties, but that hardly constitutes a “law-enforcement purpose.” I’m with the guy from EPIC – I think his method was illegal. For that matter, I think his letter was abusive and unprofessional. The goal seems to have been to place Gawronski in fear of litigation (notice the charge of slander made repeatedly by the Beary), not answer her concerns.

What is it about Florida?


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