MN: Minneapolis Police Officer’s Data Misuse Claims Head to Retrial

There’s an update to litigation stemming from misuse of a Minnesota state database. The case began in 2013, when Amy Krekelberg received a  notice from Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources that informed her that an employee had abused his access to a government driver’s license database and snooped on thousands of people in the state, mostly women. Krekelberg was one of them.

In 2017, the St. Paul City Council agreed to pay her $29,500 to settle charges.

In 2019, an audit revealed that her information — which, according to a Wired report —  would include things like her address, weight, height, and driver’s license pictures—had been viewed nearly 1,000 times since 2003, even though she was never under investigation by law enforcement. Krekelberg later learned that over 500 of those lookups were conducted by dozens of other cops, many searching her records in the middle of the night.

In a 2019 jury trial against the city of Minneapolis and two officers, a jury awarded her $585,000 that included punitive damages.

Now, however, there will be a new trial. Bloomberg reports that a federal appeals court ordered a new trial. The order recaps the history briefly:

Officer Amy Krekelberg of the Minneapolis Police Department (“MPD”) sued more than forty local government entities and employees for, among other  things, violating the Driver’s Protection Privacy Act (“DPPA”), 18 U.S.C. § 2721 et seq. By the time of trial, only three Defendants remained: the City of Minneapolis (“City”) and MPD Officers Heather Young and Matthew Olson. The remaining claims involved 74 alleged DPPA violations based on 74 impermissible accesses of Krekelberg’s driver’s license data by 58 MPD police officers. The jury returned a verdict for Krekelberg, awarding both compensatory and punitive damages. Defendants appeal, claiming that based on certain evidentiary and jury-instruction errors, they should receive a new trial. The City claims that as a matter of law, it cannot be liable for 72 of the 74 DPPA violations for which it was held vicariously liable. Defendants also challenge the jury’s punitive-damages award. For the reasons discussed below, we affirm in part, reverse in part, vacate the judgment, and remand for a new trial.

You can read the court’s reasoning in the appellate order.

In June, 2019, in noting the jury’s decision, I had commented:

I’ve been following the Minnesota law enforcement snooping case for years now, and while I’m glad to see that the jury awarded punitive damages, I’m disturbed that other police officers backed their misbehaving fellow officers instead of supporting the fellow officer whose privacy had been repeatedly violated.

Nationwide: has snooping/misuse of police and state databases been reduced over the years, or are there just less audits that would find it? And what is the attitude of officers towards those who do snoop or misuse databases — and do they (still) support their colleagues or their victims? Is snooping excused or shrugged off by most officers? Is it more likely to be tolerated if the target of the inappropriate search is a fellow female officer or a female?   Have we made any progress as a society?  These cases were not just workplace privacy issues or data protection issues — they are also generally issues of sexism and civil liberties.

With the growing use of facial recognition technology, civil liberties groups like EFF have repeatedly raised the need for protections and checks on access to databases. But has it happened? A November, 2020 news report suggests that there have not been significant changes in limiting or monitoring access to databases, although some states have made efforts.

How many current cases like Kekelberg’s will we find if audits are conducted?

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