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Looking Into Hubby’s Ex May Cost Florida Deputy

(CN) - A Florida sheriff's deputy who accessed the driver's records of her husband's ex-wife nearly 200 times must face violation-of-privacy claims, a federal judge ruled.

Orange County Deputy Sheriff Kathleen Destefano used her access to the Driver and Vehicle Information Database and national and Florida crime information records to investigate Theresa Ann Ela, the ex-wife of Destefano's husband.

According to Ela's March 2013 complaint, Destefano searched the databases almost 200 times, and copied and delivered Ela's personal information to another person opposing Ela in an unrelated lawsuit.

Ela alleged that Destefano and her supervisors, including Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings, as well as various state agencies violated her rights under the Driver's Privacy Protection Act and under the U.S. and Florida Constitutions.

Congress enacted the Driver's Privacy Protection Act in 1994 to foreclose the sale or release to third parties of information drivers provide to states for licensing. The act bars state departments of motor vehicles from knowingly disclosing drivers' personal information, including their photographs, Social Security numbers, names and addresses, to any person or entity, with certain exceptions.

Destefano and her co-defendants sought dismissal of the claims on various grounds including a challenge to the law's constitutionality.

U.S. District Judge John Antoon II last week upheld the act, which he noted allows individuals to sue persons, organizations or entities that violate the act.

Ela cannot, however, pursue claims against the sheriff's office and the state agencies, Antoon said, finding that the federal law does not apply to them.

The complaint also failed to state a cause of action against state officials who were not involved in the alleged conduct themselves, and Ela could not prove vicarious liability, according to the Jan. 29 order.

While Sheriff Demings might have participated in the alleged conduct, at least as Destefano's supervisor, the claims against him amount to no more than negligence and also cannot be pursued under the statute, the court found.

But Antoon agreed that Destefano may be liable for improperly accessing and using Ela's personal information.

Although Congress enacted the statute mainly to protect drivers from customized solicitation by buyers of information, the act also prohibits state agency employees from using the information for improper purposes, the ruling states.

Antoon dismissed Ela's claims that the defendants had violated her privacy rights under the U.S. and Florida Constitutions, finding that Ela could not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in information that was collected and maintained by the state.

"The state did not acquire the information as a result of a search of Ela's papers and effects but because she gave it to them in return for issuance of her driver's license," Antoon wrote. "The state added the information to its databases. The databases were created and are maintained for legitimate purposes. It was to be expected that this information would be appropriately accessed by those approved for database certification."

Ela also failed to sufficiently allege the sheriff's office and state agencies had a custom or practice that caused a violation of her civil rights, the judge concluded.

Antoon gave Ela until Feb. 18 to amend her allegations against Sheriff Demings and other supervisors in their individual capacities.

In a separate order, the judge refused to strike information about Destefano's marriage to Ela's ex-husband and the term "ridiculous" as used to describe Destefano's conduct.

"We are pleased with the judge's ruling and intend to amend some of the allegations to keep the sheriff as a defendant individually," Sherri DeWitt, who represents Ela, said in a phone interview. "At least the judge recognized the severity of the allegations against Destefano," DeWitt added.

Destefano's attorney did not return a request for comment.

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