Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Donna Jane Watts was on patrol one morning when a Miami police car whizzed by at speeds as high as 120 m.p.h.  Even with the lights flashing and siren sounding, it took Trooper Watts more than 7 minutes to get the cop car to pull over.  Not certain of whether the vehicle had been stolen, she approached the car with her gun drawn cautiously.

According to her cruiser’s dashboard cam, she said “put your hands out the window! Right now!”  She discovered that the driver was Miami Police Department officer Fausto Lopez, who was dressed in full uniform.  She holstered her weapon, but still handcuffed him and took his weapon as a safety measure during the stop.

“I apologize,” Lopez told her explaining that he was late for a second job.

“You were running 120 miles an hour,” Watts responded.

That October 2011 incident caused Lopez to get fired after the media reported it.  Watts’ actions involving a fellow officer didn’t sit well with other members of law enforcement and not long afterwards, she says that she was harassed.  She received random phone calls on her cell phone, some were threats, some pranks.  Unfamiliar vehicles and police cars began sitting outside her home in her neighborhood’s cul-de-sac.  She became increasingly afraid.

Watts suspected that her driver’s license information was being inappropriately accessed by fellow officers, so she made a public records request with the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.  She was right, over a 3 month period, 88 law enforcement officers from 25 different agencies accessed her information more than 200 times.

Law enforcement officers have long been known to band together even at controversial times, but Watts said in her lawsuit that they went too far.  Watts is suing the police agencies and individual officers under the federal Driver Privacy Protection Act of 1994.  The law provides a penalty of $2,500 for each violation if the information was improperly accessed.  Watts’ attorney, Mirta Desir said it’s clear that most of the officers had no legitimate reason to look at her information.  If all the searches are illegal, Watts could receive $500,000 in compensation.

Desir said, “Ultimately what it comes down to is a violation of privacy.  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 officers being sued faced disciplinary action, usually a reprimand.  Lawyers for the police agencies have asked a judge to dismiss the lawsuit claiming under the U.S. Constitution that Congress cannot hold officers liable for accessing the information, unless they were to sell it.  Some of the officers claim they had a legitimate reason to access the data.

Trooper Andrew Cobb said in court documents 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.”


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