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ACLU Sues Town of Johnston for Unlawful Release of Driver’s License Information to Public Official

Posted: December 04, 2009|Category: Free Speech Category: Privacy

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The RI ACLU has filed a federal lawsuit against the Town of Johnston and police chief Richard Tamburini for illegally releasing the private driver's 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, is on behalf of town resident and firefighter Edward Simone, who was the victim of the disclosure.

In April, the Johnston Sunrise, a local newspaper, published a letter to the editor from Town Council member Ernest Pitochelli, which leveled an array of criticisms against 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 on Simone’s behalf argues that the town and police chief violated the Drivers Privacy Protection Act, a federal law specifically enacted to prohibit the disclosure of motor vehicle record information by police and others for unauthorized purposes. The lawsuit also raises a number of constitutional claims, and argues that the illegal release of Simone’s motor vehicle information has “caused a chilling effect” on the free speech rights of residents. The suit seeks a court declaration that the Town and police chief violated Simone’s constitutional and statutory rights, and seeks an award of damages for those violations.

RI ACLU attorney Kelleher said today: “The issues raised by this case go far beyond the political sparring in Johnston. Everyone should be concerned when one of the powers vested in our police can be so easily misused.” RI ACLU executive director Steven Brown concurred that the lawsuit was important because the incident was “symptomatic of a much bigger, but hidden, problem with the misuse of police and driver’s license databases for political purposes.” Brown pointed to an incident four years ago where it was learned that Woonsocket police ran the license plates of cars parked outside a restaurant where a political event for a mayoral candidate was taking place.

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