By Jesse Marx
By Chris Parker
By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
Seated on a couch between her two basset hounds, Anne Marie Rasmusson hardly looks like the sort of siren who would cause men to dash their careers at her feet. A former cop, she hides her 5-foot-2-inch figure under a bulky sweatshirt and keeps her blond hair clipped short.
Nonetheless, she is undeniably pretty. She has arresting green eyes, a sincere smile, and a face much younger than her 37 years.
Rasmusson gets up to find her purse, and pulls out her pocketbook. She slips out her driver's license, and looks at the photo that made her the target of leering police officers, and now the plaintiff in an impending federal lawsuit.
"There is nothing that I would say about this driver's license photo or any of my previous ones that in any way would deserve the attention that they've gotten," she says. "I can't begin to understand what people were thinking."
The numbers were astounding: One hundred and four officers in 18 different agencies from around the state had accessed her driver's license record 425 times in what could be one of the largest private data breaches by law enforcement in history.
The Department of Public Safety sent letters to all 18 agencies demanding an Internal Affairs investigation of the 104 officers. If the cops are found to be in violation of federal privacy law, they could be fired.
Rasmusson's lawsuit, which will be filed in the coming weeks, alleges that not only was her privacy compromised, but that her story is merely a symptom of a larger culture of data abuse by police. Her attorneys charge that while police are trained to use the driver's license database for official purposes only, in reality it's more like a Facebook for cops.
The agencies involved have maintained that this is an isolated incident. But one officer, who would not use his name for fear of further discipline, says that the practice is commonplace.
"I get Anne's side of it," he says. "But every single cop in the state has done this. Chiefs on down."
Better technology has made using law enforcement databases easier than ever. Where once a single terminal in the patrol room was the only access point for an entire department, today officers can log in at their personal desk computers as well as the dashboard monitors in their squad cars.
All searches must have an investigative purpose in order to comply with state data practices and privacy laws. All the agencies named in the audit say their officers are trained not to access the records of family or friends on a lark. But anecdotal evidence suggests that the attitude among the rank and file is a very different picture.
"You used to look up people without even a second thought," says Jim McKnight, a former officer with St. Paul police. "You'd look up old friends from high school or just someone you used to know."
Indeed, this is hardly the first time cops have been in hot water for misusing the database. In 2010, while caught up in a tumultuous love triangle, St. Paul police officer Jessica Phillips allegedly accessed the driver's record of her rival for the man's affections. After the woman complained about harassing calls and texts, Phillips was criminally charged with a misdemeanor for unauthorized computer use.
In 2008, Mayor R.T. Rybak was busted by TV news camera crews just as he was about to climb into his Prius. Was he aware, the reporters wanted to know, that his license had been suspended for three months? It was an embarrassing gaffe for the mayor, and some believe the media were tipped off by cops who had checked out Rybak's record for fun.
Local celebrities and oddballs are fair game as well. According to one officer, a man known as "Punk Rock Freddie" is a favorite driver's license for cops to look up because of his heavily pierced face.
There's a term for this kind of misuse, according to Ryan Calo, director of privacy at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society. "'Mission creep' is the idea that you give people a set of tools to fight crime and they start using it for other reasons."
The drivers database is audited monthly by the Department of Public Safety. The department flags officers for using their access too heavily.
But in Rasmusson's case, the normal checks and balances didn't work. Rather than one errant officer, the case has a common victim.
Cumulatively, says Peter Swire, a law professor at Ohio State University who once served as the chief counselor on privacy for the Clinton administration, it amounts to an unprecedented privacy breach.
"I've never heard of improper access by this many agencies."
Rasmusson became interested in police work after her cop brother-in-law arranged her first ride-along. She got her law enforcement degree soon after high school and joined the Eden Prairie Police Department as its youngest officer.
"I'm trying to think of any other officers that would have been thought of as highly as her. I can't," says Wendy Klute, a former fellow officer. "Part of it is her personality—she was fun and easy to get along with."