Orange Co. Sheriff Used Driving Records To Locate Critic
Letter To Editor Criticized Use Of Tasers, Sheriff's Weight
WFTV | April 6, 2005
ORLANDO, Fla. -- Orange County's sheriff may have broken the law when he used driver's license records to track down a woman who wrote a newspaper to criticize his staff's use of Taser stun guns and described him as too fat for basic police work, critics say.
Orange County Sheriff Kevin Beary had his aides use the records to get the address of Alice Gawronski so he could send her a scathing letter, which some say violated federal privacy law. It is illegal to access a driver's license database to obtain personal information, except for clear law-enforcement purposes, under the Driver's Privacy Protection Act of 1994.
"I recently read your slanderous remarks about the Orange County Sheriff's Office in the Orlando Sentinel," Beary wrote Gawronski on March 23. "It is unfortunate that people ridicule others without arming themselves with the facts before they slander a law enforcement agency or individual."
Gawronski said, "I thought I was exercising my First Amendment right of free speech -- expressing an opinion in an open forum about a paid public official." She considered Beary's letter a form of intimidation.
Violators of the driver's privacy act can be sued in U.S. District Court for damages of at least $2,500, punitive damages, attorney's fees and all other relief the court determines to be appropriate.
"If I were her, I'd sue and get him in front of a jury. He'd probably get laughed out of the courtroom," said Chris Hoofnagle, the senior counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "This is the most common problem with surveillance -- who's watching the watchers."
Sheriff Kevin Beary
But sheriff's officials said Tuesday that it was legal to look up Gawronski's address on the driver's database. Sheriff's spokesman Jim Solomons said responding to a resident's concern is well within Beary's official duties.
The issue arose when Gawronski's letter appeared in the Sentinel on March 10. The Winter Park mother of four said her concerns about Tasers peaked when an Orlando police officer zapped a suspect handcuffed to a hospital bed to obtain a urine specimen.
In her letter, she referred to a televised news conference last June when Beary allowed himself to be zapped with a Taser to demonstrate their safety. Seeing Beary incapacitated by 50,000 volts and "in an obvious state of duress" convinced her the stun guns should not be used, she wrote.
Gawronski also wrote that Beary appeared so overweight and out of shape that she doubted he could arrest anyone without a stun gun. She suggested that if deputies were more fit, they might not need to resort to zapping suspects.
Beary said he was a victim of slander.
"During my Taser incident, I was never under any duress," he wrote Gawronski, adding that his heart activity was monitored by a doctor during the demonstration. Before the test, the 5-foot, 10-inch Beary estimated his weight at 290 pounds.