In response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request that asked to know whether the department had acted lawfully in accessing certain Department of Public Safety (DPS) records, the Isanti County Sheriff’s Department said through attorneys that it was “not obligated” to answer.
The April 13 response was signed by attorneys Margaret Skelton and Timothy Sullivan of the Minneapolis-based law offices of Ratwik, Roszak & Maloney, which the department contracted to respond to a FOIA request submitted on March 30. The request included twelve questions seeking to find whether officers acted lawfully in using the state’s database for potentially political purposes in 2010 and 2011.
The request also sought information on whether State Rep. Brian Johnson had used the database on certain unusual occasions. Rep. Johnson was employed by the department at the time as a deputy for the county.
Specifically, the request sought to find why two individuals in the department accessed my data 22 dates over ten dates in 2010 and two dates in 2011. Records produced by the DPS display unique dates and times that instances of access take place; the computer terminal on which they take place; and the "user" number of the employee engaged in the activity, but do not explicitly provide identities of those engaged in the access.
When I spoke with Sally Christiansen, a records clerk in the sheriff’s department, she said she could not identify a legal reason for the information to have been accessed.
The usage of the database is unusual for two reasons. For one, when a person has an encounter with law enforcement, it normally produces a couple of events noted in DPS records. In this case, there was no interaction with the department, yet 22 events were logged in the record. Additionally, both of my parents had their information accessed by the department as well – which also occurred in 2010 –which means the three of us had our data accessed by someone in the department a total of 24 times.
Out of the 24 occasions, 21 took place during my 2010 campaign for the Minnesota House. Any misuse of the database represents a violation of the federal Driver’s Privacy Protection Act (DPPA).
The FOIA asked, among other things, “whether each access [to] records through the database” on the twelve dates in question “represented a lawful purpose.” Through its attorneys, the department responded, “to the extent that you seek… a reason as to why your DPS data was accessed, our client is not obligated to create data in order to respond to your request.”
Additionally, the FOIA requested to know the “number of instances that Deputy Brian Johnson used the DPS database” on the relevant dates without directly establishing wrongdoing. The department responded that because the data could be used to determine whether he accessed data on certain individuals. it could not be divulged. “Given the fact that the identity of the Isanti County employee or employees who accessed your DPS records constitutes private data on individuals, any other government data that could be combined in order to enable you to uniquely identify the employee… who accessed your records also constitutes private data,” the attorneys wrote.
In 2013, it was found that Minnesota police officers had widely used the DPS database to illegally access personal information such as Social Security numbers, legal records, health records, and similar information. A number of victims in the matter have filed a brief that is currently before the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, with oral arguments expected to take place this coming fall.