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ACLU Settles Suit Against Johnston Over Unlawful Release of Driver’s License Information

Posted: May 11, 2010|Category: Free Speech Category: Privacy

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The RI ACLU today announced the favorable settlement of a federal lawsuit it filed last year against the Town of Johnston and police chief Richard Tamburini for illegally releasing the private drivers’ license information of a firefighter to a Town Councilman as part of a public dispute between the Council and the Fire Department. The lawsuit, filed by RI ACLU volunteer attorney James Kelleher, was on behalf of the firefighter, Edward Simone.


In settlement of the case, the Town has agreed to pay $15,000 in damages and attorneys’ fees. In a consent judgment filed today in court, the town has also agreed to take “sufficient steps” within 60 days to prevent similar violations of the law from occurring in the future, and to apprise Simone of the steps taken.


Last April, the Johnston Sunrise, a local newspaper, published a letter to the editor from Town Council member Ernest Pitochelli, which severely criticized the Fire Department. As part of the letter, Pitochelli described seeing a car displaying what he deemed to be an offensive bumper sticker relating to the ongoing Fire Department/Town Council dispute. (The bumper sticker allegedly read: “Firefighters here to save your ass, not kiss it.”) Pitochelli’s letter to the editor cited the car’s license plate number, and then proceeded to both name Mr. Simone as its owner and further identify him as an employee of the Fire Department who was out on work-related disability.


A day after the letter to the editor was published, Simone’s car windshield was smashed in his driveway. Surmising that Pitochelli had unlawfully obtained his driver’s registration information from the local police, Simone filed a complaint with the state police. After investigating the matter, the state police confirmed his suspicions.


The RI ACLU’s lawsuit argued that the town and police chief violated a federal law that prohibits the disclosure of motor vehicle record information by police and others for unauthorized purposes. The lawsuit also raised a number of constitutional claims.


RI ACLU attorney Kelleher said today: “Hopefully, this case will stand as a reminder to the police that the law always provides a limit to the exercise of their power, and there will always be citizens who are willing to challenge that exercise.” RI ACLU executive director Steven Brown added: “Everybody’s privacy is at risk when police release confidential information for political purposes. This incident demonstrates the need for vigilance and for strong laws to protect the privacy of personal information held by the government.”

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