Its too bad the offenders can’t be stuck with at least the legal fees.

St. Louis County settles in data privacy case
By John Myers Today at 12:30 a.m.

St. Louis County will pay $112,500 to settle its part of a federal lawsuit by a former Iron Range sheriff’s deputy who says her privacy was invaded hundreds of times by unnecessary queries into her motor vehicle and driving records.

The County Board today is expected to approve the settlement proposed by County Attorney Mark Rubin rather than allow the case to go to federal court and ring up attorney fees.

Jennifer Rae Heglund and her husband, Jamie Lee Heglund, filed the civil suit in January 2014 against St. Louis County, the state of Minnesota and dozens of counties and cities across the state after they discovered their records had been accessed 480 times between 2003 and 2013.

The suit claims the data searches were part of a pattern of harassment by Jennifer Heglund’s ex-husband, a Minnesota State Patrol trooper, and his friends within the law enforcement community.

The Heglunds had committed no crimes or vehicle violations that would have led to the data searches, the suit claims, and in fact had not even been in the locations where many of the searches originated.

The suit was filed based on the federal Driver’s Privacy Protection Act.

Before the suit was filed, however, the statute of limitations had run out for many of the 480 data searches, leading federal District Judge Ann Montgomery to dismiss claims against most of the defendants in September 2014, including Duluth, Hermantown, Minneapolis, St. Paul and all of the counties named except St. Louis.

The defendants remaining in the case are St. Louis County, Virginia, Grand Rapids and state agencies. Only about 33 of the 480 data searches are still included in the lawsuit, according to federal court documents.

The Heglunds’ attorney, Jonathan Strauss, declined to comment Monday on the case for this story.

The lawsuit is the latest in a series filed for violation of data privacy laws against law enforcement agencies in Minnesota, including several big-money cases in the Twin Cities in 2012 and 2013. The highest-profile case was that of Anne Marie Rasmussen, a former police officer who sued after her data was queried more than 400 times. She received more than $1 million in settlements, including $800,000 from Minneapolis and St. Paul.

A 2013 report by the Minnesota Legislative Auditor found that more than half of the 11,000 officers using the state driver’s data website had likely misused their privileges. The report called for better training and oversight over how and why the data is accessed.

In this latest case, Jennifer Heglund says in the lawsuit that she was an officer for the Biwabik, Hoyt Lakes and Eveleth police departments and then a deputy for the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office. She was married to a Minnesota State Patrol officer but divorced in 2005. She married Jamie Heglund in 2009. They live north of Virginia.

According to the suit, Jennifer Heglund had to leave the county sheriff’s office in 2012 after an injury suffered in a car accident while on duty.

In the lawsuit, the couple claims that law enforcement officers from across the region essentially stalked their personal data through motor vehicle records for no legitimate reason.

“The defendants are the window peepers of the electronic digital age,’’ the lawsuit claims. “Through lax policies and apathetic enforcement of the law, these officials and governmental units caused direct damage to plaintiffs. …”

The officers involved “abused their position of trust simply to satisfy their shallow desires to peek behind the curtain into the private lives of the plaintiffs. …”

The data searches “were not of any legitimate interest to law enforcement other than for personal reasons, such as curiosity, gossip or romantic attraction,’’ the suit contends.

The actual federal law requires only that the plaintiffs prove that their information was looked up for no legitimate reason. The law, which sets a $2,500 limit for each inapproriate data search, doesn’t require that any harm be proven, according to attorneys familiar with the case.

According to the proposed County Board resolution, County Attorney Mark Rubin is recommending the board approve the settlement “to avoid the expense and risk associated with further litigation.”

The county admits no wrongdoing in the settlement.

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