[CCCC-USA] Judge says police, town can be sued for unauthorized license checks
- ----- Original Message -----Judge says police, town can be sued for unauthorized license checksBy MICHAEL VIRTANEN
Associated Press Writer
March 19, 2003, 8:33 PM EST
ALBANY, N.Y. -- A federal judge has ruled that police officers, as well as the municipalities they work for, can be sued for running license plate checks for their friends.
U.S. District Judge David Hurd refused Tuesday to dismiss the lawsuit against officer Keith McKenna, the town of Glenville and two men who used information obtained from McKenna to threaten and harass a group insurance investigators and their families.
"Congress intended to prevent stalkers, harassers, would-be criminals and other unauthorized individuals from obtaining personal information from motor vehicle records," Hurd wrote, such as William P. Niles and Garth Russell Johnston.
Niles' claim for disability benefits was being challenged in 1999, when he and Johnston harassed the claims administrator and investigators watching Niles. They videotaped the administrator's children and sent threatening notes. They eventually pleaded guilty to a federal count of conspiracy to commit extortion, according to Hurd.
They had obtained investigators' names and addresses from Johnston's friend, officer McKenna, based on license plate numbers, Hurd wrote. Niles and Johnston are also named in the civil suit.
The Driver's Privacy Protection Act was passed in response to the 1989 murder of actress Rebecca Schaeffer by a man who got her home address from the California Department of Motor Vehicles, the judge wrote. It was "a crime fighting measure," not just for general privacy protection, he wrote.
The judge noted the 1994 law specifically provides for civil suits against "a person who knowingly obtains, discloses or uses personal information from a motor vehicle record for a purpose not permitted..." That's meant to prevent abuse, including by police who have ready access to records, he wrote.
McKenna, now retired from the Glenville department, had said in a deposition that he ran license plate numbers for private citizens about six to 10 times a year through the New York Statewide Police Information Network, and suggested that other officers did it also, according to the judge.
McKenna's attorney, Joseph Giannetti, said the officer didn't know what Johnston and Niles were going to do with the information, and McKenna wasn't subject to any criminal charges.
Glenville Police Chief Jack Purdy said McKenna continued as an officer until he retired, and was subject to internal discipline for handling that case by phone instead of writing it up, a minor internal rules violation.
"We don't just arbitrarily give people information unless there's a need to know," Purdy said. "With McKenna, he had an acquaintance who called up and said he was harassed by a driver of a certain vehicle. McKenna said, 'Do you know so and so? Can you identify him?"'
The police chief said similar situations occur such as when a business or property owner finds a strange vehicle parked in a restricted spot and calls the police. Sometimes, he said, identifying the vehicle's owner quickly clears things up when it's somebody the caller knows.
Attorney Kevin Luibrand, who represents the insurance investigators, administrator and their children, said the information shared by McKenna "wasn't police business," and the implication of this case is that officers improperly run license plates for their friends all the time.
"The case will move forward," Luibrand said. "It'll definitely go to trial."
Attorney David Bagley, retained by an insurance company to defend the town, said Glenville shouldn't be held liable since McKenna's actions were a violation of the town's policy. He said they will consider an appeal. He said it's "a case of first impression," with no court direct precedents.
Although state agencies are exempt from civil liability under the 1994 law, municipalities are not, and have "vicarious liability" for the actions of their officers, Hurd wrote.
Niles' attorney, Mike Koenig, said he had not seen Hurd's decision and would not comment on the ongoing lawsuit. Johnston's attorney could not be reached.
Copyright © 2003, The Associated Press
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