Is Anne Marie Rasmusson too hot to have a driver's license?
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."
Rasmusson's energy earned her the nickname "Bubbles."
Just before Rasmusson's 25th birthday, someone in the department suggested a bet to see who could lose the most body fat in three months. Rasmusson, who had always been overweight, threw $25 into the pool, and started exercising and eating healthy for the first time in her life.
After the three months, Rasmusson weighed almost 15 pounds lighter. She was hooked. A year later, she'd lost 85 pounds and had to get a special allowance for a brand new uniform, duty belt, and bulletproof vest.
"It wasn't a rapid transition," she says. "It was hard work."
Rasmusson continued losing weight after she transferred to the St. Paul Police Department in 2001, running six miles a day before her shifts, and frequenting the department gym two to three days a week.
By 2003, however, Rasmusson's health became an issue. While still with the Eden Prairie department, she'd arrived at the home of a woman having a heart attack. The woman was on the floor; to reach her they needed to move a heavy coffee table. Rasmusson and her partner lifted the table, and Rasmusson heaved backward, right into a massive entertainment center. She heard the crack of bone.
At the hospital, she found out she'd broken her coccyx. The damage was so severe that a large section of bone had to be removed, making her spine end abnormally high.
Over the years, the pressure from wearing a heavy belt and sitting for hours in a squad car took its toll. She was losing feeling in her legs. Her pelvis was sitting off kilter.
Finally, after her doctors told her the problem would only get more severe, she accepted a medical retirement. By then, she was married to a Minneapolis police officer, and all their friends were cops. She suddenly found herself an outsider.
"It was devastating," she says.
The combination of poor health and a lost career put a strain on the young marriage. In 2007, Rasmusson and her husband divorced. She moved to Lakeville, a south metro city where many of her friends from the force lived.
Looking for ways to occupy her time, she turned again to exercise. She started training at the Lifetime Fitness in Lakeville, a gym popular with police officers from several different agencies. In 2009, she competed in her first body sculpting competition.
It was also during this time that strange events began to happen.
The first incident came when she was reconnecting with a friend from the academy. He casually mentioned that he and his partner had looked up her driver's license photo on the computer in their squad car, and commented that she looked great.
"I wasn't aware that the technology had advanced to that point," Rasmusson says. "It was a friend, but I thought it was a little odd."
Rasmusson also began receiving unsolicited dating offers from cops. An officer she'd met briefly years before texted her asking if she'd like to go boating. Confused by such a forward invitation from someone she could barely remember, she texted back, "I think you have the wrong Anne."
Moments later, the reply arrived: "I've definitely got the right Anne."
She politely declined.
Before long, she stopped seeing a man she'd been out with a couple of times. He didn't take it well, and continued calling, even cruising by her house. In a series of texts, the man said his friend, another police officer, had "filled him in" on her past, her dating life, and even the kind of car she was driving.
She told him never to contact her again.
While training for her fitness competition, Rasmusson overheard cops who frequented the gym gossiping about what she used to look like, even though she hadn't met them until after she was skinny.
The final straw came after a bad breakup. Her boyfriend—a trainer at Lifetime—knew many of the same officers she did from the gym, and wasn't shy about sharing the details. Destroyed and embarrassed, she decided to move away from Lakeville, her gym, and all the cops gossiping about her.
"I just wanted some privacy," she says. "I didn't know what more to do."
In 2009, Rasmusson moved to a small, comfortable bungalow on 160 acres of an old pine tree farm. Far away from the cities, she figured she'd finally be safe. She changed her phone number and told her family not to tell anyone her new address.
But her newfound tranquility was shattered two years later. She was contacted by the Lakeville police on behalf of her ex-boyfriend, the trainer from the gym, who complained that she'd violated a harassment order by sending him an email. Confusion over whether the order was actually served to Rasmusson led the officer to drop the matter. But the incident meant that cops knew her address and new phone number.
All the old stories about cops accessing her driver's record came flooding back.
"I need to know if I'm being paranoid," she thought.
She decided to call the Department of Public Safety to find out if there was a way to put a block on her driver's record. There wasn't. Distraught, she was transferred to a data practices coordinator.
"I just want this to stop," Rasmusson said.
At first, the coordinator was skeptical. An audit of the database is serious business, and hunches didn't get Rasmusson very far.
So Rasmusson wove the larger story: She used to be a cop and she'd heard that after her divorce other officers were looking her up.
Finally, the coordinator agreed. She'd have the results in a couple of days.
When Rasmusson got a call two weeks later, the coordinator took a very different tone: "Have you been on the news recently?"
Rasmusson, who was just leaving a friend's house, pulled her car over to the side of a township road. "No," she said. "There's been nothing."
The coordinator told Rasmusson that her hunch had been right: Her private data was accessed over and over by cops all across the state, going back to 2007.
Each of the cops who'd looked her up would be notified about the audit, and their access of her record would be investigated for possible discipline. Rasmusson, however, wouldn't have a voice in the process. The officers would know who she was; she wouldn't know who they were.
"Can you tell me how many agencies there were?" Rasmusson asked.
The coordinator told her the final tally was 18.
Rasmusson ended the call. Then she opened the car door and vomited.
On September 14, in an atrium room above the Eden Prairie Police Department, Lieutenant Bill Wyffels sat down with Officer Zachary Hessel and flicked on a recording device. After some seemingly mundane questions about legal uses of the database, the real interview began.
"I'll get to the meat and potatoes of this," Wyffels said. "The Department of Vehicle Services received a complaint from a female who is a former officer of the Eden Prairie Police Department. Her name is Anne Marie Rasmusson."
"I know who she is," said Hessel.
"She believes that her name was run in the DVS database," continued Wyffels. "Do you ever recall personally running her name in the database?"
The officer quickly invoked his Garrity rights, a law enforcement privilege that says his statements can be used only for internal investigations, not criminal prosecution. Then he answered the question: "Yes, I do."
In the months that followed the audit, similar Internal Affairs interviews were taking place in private rooms in law enforcement agencies across the state.
In some departments, such as Dakota County Sheriff, Bloomington Police, and the State Troopers, one or two officers were determined to be peering illegally into Rasmusson's file.
Yet others were responsible for huge numbers of illicit searches. Minneapolis police had 24 officers who'd accessed Rasmusson's record 133 times. St. Paul had 42 officers responsible for 175 look-ups. One female cop in St. Paul looked Rasmusson up 30 times over the course of two years.
In Eden Prairie, the audit turned up the names of 10 officers. Wyffels took responsibility for interrogating his own officers over their use of the driver's license database.
Officer Hessel admitted in his interview to accessing Rasmusson's record at a patrol room computer in 2011, saying he wanted to see what she looked like.
"Her name came up in a conversation with other officers," he explained.
The same day, Detective Christopher Millard told Wyffels he'd looked up her record to get her address—the two were old friends, he explained, and using the database was just easier.
A third officer, who in the Eden Prairie investigation files remains unnamed, came forward that day with a more provocative story. He'd been out on patrol when his supervisor called his cell phone.
"I believe that they stated for me to run her," the anonymous officer said.
"For what purpose?" Wyffels asked.
"To look at her picture, um, and this had something, I believe the conversation surrounded plastic surgery that she had done," the cop answered.
"Who has asked you to do that?" Wyffels asked.
"Carter Staaf," the officer replied.
The next day, Sergeant Staaf was in the hot seat. He accounted for 13 direct look-ups over the years. Now Wyffels wanted to know if he was the "Patient Zero" for the data breach in Eden Prairie.
"Would you do it to compare photos?" Wyffels asked Staaf.
"That'd be fair to say that," Staaf answered.
"What would be the reason for doing that?" Wyffels pressed.
"To compare photos, just to see differences," Staaf said.
Exasperated, Wffyels asked, "I mean, there should be a reason why. Either it is for work purpose or it isn't."
"I...I don't believe those are work purposes, no," Staaf conceded.
By the end of three interviews, Staaf said Rasmusson had once been a close friend and that he'd looked her up to see if "she's got a new look."
"Have you ever commented to anybody to look at, to pull up her...or suggested to them to query her photo because she is now very attractive?" Wyffels pressed at one point.
"I would...I mean, that's probably the reason," Staaf stammered, and later on, defeatedly: "I'm giving you my belly...my goal is to stand here and stand accountable for that. I'm happy to take whatever it is."
It ended up being a demotion and a five-day suspension, the harshest penalty that has resulted in the inquiry so far. Hessel and Millard had letters of warning placed in their files. All 10 officers were sent to retraining.
The punishments varied wildly by department. Minneapolis didn't discipline any of the 24 officers who looked up Rasmusson's record. St. Paul absolved four of its officers, and is still considering discipline for 38 more.
Burnsville Police Chief Robert Hawkins decided to deal with the matter without formal discipline. "There was no ill will, no maliciousness," he says. "The officers understood what was done was wrong."
In the back room of a restaurant in St. Paul, Rasmusson sits in the crook of a corner booth so she can face the door. She didn't want to come here—it's a cop restaurant.
"I'm the one who snitched in their eyes," she says. "They know me, but I don't know who they are."
These trips to the city are necessary now that she has been meeting with attorneys. She takes some precautions—she wears her old wedding band and engagement ring to keep people from thinking she lives alone. Her BMW sedan happens to be in the shop, so she made the trip down in a loaner without worrying about her plates being run.
Seated in between two grim-faced attorneys busily taking notes on yellow legal pads, Rasmusson looks even smaller. She says she's doing slightly better. She feels safer in her home now, with the addition of a gate and security system, plus a new puppy named Brick who over the next year will grow into a formidable guard dog.
She's stopped worrying about the damage her impending lawsuit is going to have on the cops' careers.
"I had a sense of, like, feeling responsible, thinking, 'Well, what if someone loses their job?'" she says. "I'm over feeling guilty for their actions. I didn't do anything to deserve it. They chose to use tools that were available to them for improper reasons."
Unauthorized look-ups of her record have slowed to a trickle. Only one new agency has been added to the pile since August 2011: the Hennepin County Sheriff's Department. The circumstances are still under investigation.
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