MINNEAPOLIS — A federal judge on Thursday dismissed a lawsuit filed by a group of current and former Minnesota residents who allege that dozens of public employees violated their privacy by illegally looking up their driver's license data for political reasons.
The 18 plaintiffs, including some local elected officials, claimed they were targeted because they had been critical of Wabasha County government. They alleged officials in 26 counties, 36 cities, state agencies and other entities violated their privacy by looking up their driver's license data 600 times from April 2003 until the lawsuit was filed last September.
U.S. District Judge Ann Montgomery said Thursday that all of the look-ups before Sept. 12, 2009, were too old and fell outside the statute of limitations.
For the remaining 235 look-ups, she said, the plaintiffs failed to show a connection between an instance of a driver's license look-up and a specific reason that would make it illegal.
"We alleged that the accessing of the records was related to the political activity, including criticizing and suing the (Wabasha County) Sheriff's Department," said Erick Kaardal, an attorney for the plaintiffs. "We were as specific as we could be without having the opportunity to interview the officers who did the pinging. ... We think there's an appealable issue there."
The lawsuit separated the defendants into three groups: Wabasha County defendants, state defendants and other county, court and municipal defendants. It claimed the Wabasha County defendants had political motives, but said it was unclear why state or other public employees accessed their data. The plaintiffs' group is reform-oriented, and includes liberals, conservatives, Republicans and Democrats.
In the case of the four elected officials, Montgomery said, a claim could be supported if the look-ups were alleged to be casually connected or motivated by their status as elected officials and by publicity surrounding debates and campaigns. But, she said, the fact that they held office and campaigned is too vague.
Montgomery left room for some of the claims to be refiled after evidence presented during oral arguments suggested "clusters" of look-ups may reveal an improper purpose.
Kaardal said the plaintiffs will appeal, refile their complaint or both.
Joe Flynn, an attorney for several of the defendants, said he believes the case would be dismissed again if a new claim was brought.
Montgomery noted that while law officers have a legitimate reason to access driver's license data, they must have a permitted purpose to do so, such as during the course of a traffic stop or other law enforcement activity.
She said there have been at least 28 similar cases in U.S. District Court in Minnesota. She said many have been dismissed or partly dismissed.