A Florida Highway Patrol trooper who made national news for pulling over a speeding cop at gunpoint lost the only part of her privacy lawsuit against police that made it to court.
An appeals court on Wednesday sided with five Miami officers, finding that Trooper Donna “Jane” Watts didn’t prove they violated her privacy by using a state database to look up her personal information.
Watts’ lawsuit alleged 88 law enforcement officers from 25 jurisdictions illegally accessed her personal information more than 200 times, violating her privacy. All of them settled — except for the five Miami officers, who were individually named in the lawsuit and took it to court.
The Miami officers argued that because Watts had pulled her gun on a Miami police officer, they “wanted to be able to identify her for their own safety” and so they needed to see her picture.
Watts drew attention in October 2011, when she pulled over a uniformed, off-duty Miami officer who was speeding at 120 mph in his cruiser through Broward on Florida’s Turnpike.
After following him, she handcuffed him and cited him for reckless driving. The high-speed pursuit, caught on dashcam video, outraged the public and led to a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation by the Sun Sentinel that found off-duty speeding throughout South Florida police agencies.
After the traffic stop, Watts said she became afraid of the police: She received online threats, hang-ups on her home phone and cellphone, according to her lawsuit. Police followed her for no reason, and pranksters sent pizza to her house, the lawsuit said.
Cars stopped and lingered on her cul-de-sac, she said in her suit.
Watts alleged that other law enforcement officers created a “life-threatening” situation that caused her to fear so much for her safety she became physically ill and began living as a “hermit.”
She also began opening her mailbox from the side instead of from the front in case there was something in it. She eventually moved from her Coral Springs home to the Florida Panhandle, her attorney has said.
In the months that followed, officers from across Florida looked up information such as Watts’ home address, picture, Social Security number, date of birth and a detailed vehicle description in the state’s official database.
So she made a public records request with the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles to be notified about anyone trying to find personal details about her.
In Broward that included the Broward Sheriff’s Office (which settled for $6,000); Hollywood (settled for $5,000) and Lauderhill ($6,500). Margate, to avoid being listed in the suit, settled for $10,000.
The city of Miami also settled for $24,500 in December, confirmed city spokeswoman Diana Gonzalez on Wednesday. And, the police department’s own internal affairs investigation determined the five Miami officers had done a search that was not for law enforcement purposes, and not allowed. They were officially reprimanded, but not punished.
Records show that even after seeing her picture, the Miami officers — Pablo Camacho, Roshan Milliagan, Jesus Pedraza, Jamie Ramirez and David Ciserno — still searched her information. But Watts couldn’t prove “these guys sent the pizza or drove by. They looked her up because she pointed a gun [at an officer] and they work in the area,” said the officers’ attorney, Robert Buschel. “There is no connection they harassed her.”
The incident “sent off hysteria throughout the Miami Police Department and these officers were concerned for their safety,” said Buschel. “They didn’t drive to Broward, they never harassed her, they never sent any pizza.”
An attorney for Watts could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
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