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Ex-DNR officer gets probation in license-data snooping case

ST. PAUL — A former Minnesota Department of Natural Resources officer will spend two years on probation for inappropriately accessing driver’s license data on and off the job.

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John A. Hunt, 49, of Woodbury, pleaded guilty in February to misconduct by a public officer, unauthorized computer access and unauthorized use of driver and vehicle services data. Five additional counts were dismissed at his sentencing Monday in Ramsey County District Court.

Hunt also will pay a $1,000-fine, undergo counseling for mental health issues and agree to stop contesting the loss of his job at the DNR. If he keeps his record clean for two years, his convictions will be dismissed.

Hunt declined to speak at his sentencing, citing pending civil liability for the case. His attorney, Fred Bruno, said afterward his client is handling the situation well.

“It has not been easy,” Bruno said.

Prosecutor Cary Schmies said the plea agreement and sentencing were “a very fair outcome” for Hunt, a first-time offender. Hunt’s computer was purged by experts to ensure no inappropriate data remained on it, Schmies said.

“There’s no public safety issue at all here,” Schmies said.

Hunt, a former manager in the DNR’s enforcement division was first charged in February 2013 with making thousands of searches for license data over a five-year period. Prosecutors said it was far more than were required by his job, which included using the data to perform background checks.

The people he was accused of looking up ranged from politicians to local celebrities to police officers. They included the wife of one judge in his own case and St. Paul’s city attorney, both of whom recused themselves because of the potential conflict of interest.

Schmies, a city attorney for Duluth, stepped in to assist.

About 5,000 people in all got letters from the DNR telling them their data may have been accessed inappropriately.

In his plea, Hunt did not admit guilt but conceded there was likely enough evidence to find him guilty.

The charges against him came amid broader concerns that officials with access to driver’s license information — which can include included photos, addresses and physical information about drivers — were routinely misusing it.

A state audit released a few weeks after Hunt was charged found that more than half of law enforcement searches for license data might be inappropriate. Users made searches for friends, family and even themselves without legitimate reasons, investigators found.

The audit was prompted not by Hunt, but by the case of Anne Marie Rasmusson, a former St. Paul police officer whose data was pulled hundreds of times by fellow officers.

As reports of search abuses emerged, more people stepped forward with claims they’d been searched for hundreds of times for no apparent reason. The allegations snowballed into multiple lawsuits, including five directed at the DNR for Hunt’s searches.

Federal privacy laws governing driver’s license data set minimum damages for abusing personal data at $2,500 per incident. That sparked fears from state agencies, cities and municipalities of potential multimillion-dollar payouts.

But many of the lawsuits have faltered in federal court.

One judge dismissed the suits against the DNR in September, saying individuals couldn’t sue state agencies under the law in question.

A few other lawsuits have been dismissed in similar fashion, though others are still pending against a number of Minnesota cities, counties and government agencies.

After Hunt’s sentencing, Bruno said many of the alleged violations were the byproduct of a mindset that license data was akin to “Facebook for cops” — an easily accessible, widely used source of information.

That era, he said, is likely over.

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.