Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Donna Jane Watts was on routine patrol early one morning when a Miami police car whizzed past at speeds that would eventually top 120 mph. Even with her blue lights flashing and siren blaring, it took Watts more than seven minutes to pull the speeder over.
Not certain who was behind the wheel, she approached the car warily, with gun drawn, according video from her cruiser’s dashboard camera. “Put your hands out of the window! Right now!” she yelled. It turned out the driver was Miami Police Department officer Fausto Lopez, in full uniform. Watts holstered her gun but still handcuffed him and took his weapon.
“I apologize,” Lopez said, explaining that he was late for an off-duty job.
“You were running 120 miles an hour!” Watts barked back.
That October 2011 confrontation made national headlines and eventually got Lopez fired. But Watts’ actions involving a fellow officer didn’t sit well with many in law enforcement, and not long after she made that traffic stop, she says, the harassment began. Random telephone calls on her cell phone. Some were threats and some were prank calls, including orders for pizza. Unfamiliar vehicles and police cars sat idling in her cul-de-sac. She was afraid to open her mailbox.
Watts suspected her private driver’s license information was being accessed by fellow officers, so she made a public records request with the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. It turned out she was right: over a three-month period, at least 88 law enforcement officers from 25 different agencies accessed Watts’ driver’s license information more than 200 times, according to her lawyer.
Law enforcement officers have long been known to band together and protect each other, but Watts said in her lawsuit that these actions went too far.
Watts is suing those police agencies and the individual officers under the federal Driver Privacy Protection Act, a 1994 law that provides for a penalty of $2,500 for each violation if the information was improperly accessed. Watts’ attorney, Mirta Desir, said it’s clear most of the officers had no legitimate reason to look up her data. If all the searches were found illegal, Watts could receive more than $500,000.
“Ultimately what it comes down to is a violation of privacy,” Desir said. “It wasn’t for any legitimate purpose on the part of the police officers and it was done by people in a position of trust.”
According to court documents, most of the individual officers named in Watts’ lawsuit did face some disciplinary action, usually a written reprimand. But lawyers for the agencies have asked a federal judge to dismiss the lawsuit, claiming that under the U.S. Constitution, Congress cannot hold police officers liable for merely accessing the information, but only if they try to sell it. And some claim they did have a legitimate reason.
For example, a lawyer for fellow state Trooper Andrew Cobb said in court papers that he accessed Watts’ information after “hearing rumors that other troopers were threatening” her and that his actions were done “out of concern for a fellow trooper” and as “a matter of public safety.” Under Highway Patrol policy, employees typically are not permitted to comment on legal matters.
The challenge by some Florida police agencies to the driver’s license law has drawn the attention of the U.S. Justice Department, which is defending its constitutionality. In its own court November filing, the Justice Department insists that numerous courts have held that Congress can regulate such activity even if the items involved aren’t being sold.
“There is value in drivers’ information and a market for it,” the Justice Department lawyers said. “What the defendants fail to recognize is that there is value in drivers’ information whether or not it is actually sold.”
The legal clash over Watts’ lawsuit comes as some police agencies are seeking changes in the driver’s license law itself. Bill Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Police Agencies, said law enforcement officials are concerned that lawyers are using the law to target individual officers who access the information. He noted that the $2,500 penalty per violation can add up quickly.
“In our view, it was not what the federal law was enacted to counteract,” Johnson said. “I think it would be unfair and outside the scope of the legislation to think individuals would get whacked like that.”
NAPO is lobbying Congress to remove the automatic $2,500 penalty and change the law so that a violation could only occur if there was “specific intent to secure an economic benefit,” according to the organization’s documents.
Desir, the attorney representing Watts, said anyone can ask the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles for a report — known as D.A.V.I.D., for Driving and Vehicle Information Database — on who has accessed their driver’s license information and how many times. But it isn’t easy.
“You don’t even know you’ve been looked up unless you make a concerted effort to find out,” she said.
A judge is expected to rule on the law enforcement agency and officers’ motions to dismiss in the coming weeks, which will determine whether the lawsuit continues. Desir said Watts, who had been assigned to road patrol in Broward County, has relocated and is no longer driving a cruiser, although she still works for the Highway Patrol. Through Desir, Watts declined to be interviewed.
“She’s doing OK,” Desir said.