The state of Minnesota has asked a federal judge to dismiss five lawsuits filed on behalf of several people who say their driver's license data was improperly accessed by a Department of Natural Resources employee.
The attorney general's office argued in motions filed Tuesday that the state isn't liable under a federal law that protects the privacy of driver's license data. The law sets the minimum damages at $2,500 per violation.
The lawsuits names several current and former DNR and Department of Public Safety officials, as well as former DNR enforcement officer John Hunt, who was fired after officials said he inappropriately accessed the records of 5,000 Minnesotans without any job-related purpose.
The state countered that Congress deliberately crafted the 1994 Driver's Privacy Protection Act narrowly, in a way that means only Hunt could be held liable. The state contrasted that law with a federal patient privacy law that contains specific oversight responsibilities for supervisors.
Holding the state responsible for anyone who misuses driver's license data could be "catastrophic," particularly if the damages are $2,500 for each violation, the motion said.
"The court should not presume that Congress intended such an absurd result," the motion said. Otherwise, it said, the state could face an "impossible choice" of either shutting down its driver's license database or "running the risk of ruinous liability."
The state also argued that the plaintiffs have not produced evidence that state officials knew Hunt was improperly viewing data.
U.S. District Judge Joan Erickson set a hearing on the motion for July 11.
Hunt also faces criminal charges. The complaint alleges over 90 percent of the people whose privacy was violated were women, including politicians, judges, prosecutors, law enforcement officers and journalists. His next hearing is May 24.