Florida’s driver-and-vehicle database, the system that can help law enforcement identify victims of fatal crashes and decipher the identity of a suspect, can be a useful tool for cops.
But the system — known as D.A.V.I.D., for Driving and Vehicle Information Database — can also be easily abused.
Data obtained by the Orlando Sentinel show the number of Florida law-enforcement officers suspected of misusing D.A.V.I.D. skyrocketed last year.
At least 74 law enforcers were suspected of misusing D.A.V.I.D. in 2012, a nearly 400 percent increase from 2011, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Officers who needlessly pull information or photographs from D.A.V.I.D. that would otherwise be private could face criminal charges, sanctions or disciplinary action.
And yet the temptation of looking up a relative, a celebrity’s address or a romantic interest is too great for some law enforcers.
In November, an internal Oviedo police investigation found one of the agency’s officers made unauthorized searches in D.A.V.I.D. to look up a local bank teller he was reportedly flirting with.
Oviedo police reports said Sgt. Dwayne Walker, who resigned amid the probe, used his D.A.V.I.D. account to run 19 separate searches using the first name of the bank teller and her race as part of the search criteria.
But the case that received the most attention last year involved Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Donna “Jane” Watts, who found herself at the center of a firestorm after she pulled over a speeding police officer at gunpoint in South Florida.
Last month, she filed a federal lawsuit against more than 100 officers and agencies, alleging 88 law enforcers from 25 agencies viewed her private information more than 200 times.
Watts’ West Palm Beach attorney, Mirta Desir, said whether it is her client’s case or other documented instances of misuse, “it is apparent that something is not working when it comes to the D.A.V.I.D. system.”
Each time a law-enforcement officer logs into D.A.V.I.D., he or she is told the system is subject to monitoring and audits to prevent improper use. Officers are not to use D.A.V.I.D. for personal use and cannot share or copy the information, which includes emergency contacts.
It’s unclear exactly how many law-enforcement officers in Florida misuse D.A.V.I.D. each year without being detected or reported to authorities.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement tracks D.A.V.I.D. violations as “misuse of official position,” but that category includes other violations. When the issue involves D.A.V.I.D., it is supposed to be noted in the tracking system, but that’s not guaranteed.
An FDLE spokeswoman said there is no known reason why the number of cases involving suspected improper use of D.A.V.I.D. spiked from 15 in 2011 to 74 last year.
It’s possible that allegations raised by Watts account for some portion of the documented misuse.
Robert Diemer, chairman of the criminal-justice department at Saint Leo University near Dade City, said it’s a difficult impropriety to detect.
And because information is so readily available to officers — most of whom have laptops in their patrol cars — the system has great potential for abuse.
Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicle records obtained by the Orlando Sentinel show Florida’s law enforcers made dozens of searches for newsmakers Casey Anthony and George Zimmerman.
From Jan. 10, 2012, to Jan. 10, 2013, there were 91 searches for Zimmerman, the controversial Neighborhood Watch volunteer who fatally shot teenager Trayvon Martin.
During the same period, there were 20 searches in D.A.V.I.D. for Casey Anthony, even though her trial was resolved in July 2011. Anthony’swhereabouts have been publicly unknown since she was acquitted on charges of killing her 2-year-old daughter.
A DHSMV spokeswoman acknowledged the number of queries for Zimmerman and Anthony is high compared with those forother Floridians who have not been in the spotlight.
The way to stop the misuse, Diemer said, is for agencies to act quickly and impose discipline against offending officers.
Officials with the Orange County Sheriff’s Office and Volusia County Sheriff’s Office told the Sentinel they each reported one case last year involving misuse of D.A.V.I.D. In Volusia, the offending deputy was found to have violated other policies as well and was fired.
The Seminole County Sheriff’s Office said it had one case involving misuse of D.A.V.I.D. in 2012, which was related to Watts, the South Florida trooper.
Watts claimed she sparked an uproar in the law-enforcement community after she pulled over a Miami police officer for driving erratically and at speeds greater than 100 mph.
Law enforcers from the Orlando Police Department, Orange County Sheriff’s Office, Seminole County Sheriff’s Office and Lake County Sheriff’s Office reviewed her sensitive information, the lawsuit said.
Watts’ lawyer contacted the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office after she learned Investigator Larry Pirkola used D.A.V.I.D. to search for Watts. A Sheriff’s Office report said Pirkola told the agency he queried Watts after he watched a video of the traffic stop that sparked the controversy.
The Sheriff’s Office found Pirkola violated agency orders by using the restricted database for personal reasons.
Alan Butler, appellate advocacy counsel with the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court have recognized how important it is to protect sensitive information in state databases from improper use.
“As with all systems of records that contain sensitive personal information, there needs to be limitations on use,” Butler said.