I-TEAM: Unauthorized searches made on law enforcement database

Questionable searches on News4Jax employees spark investigations

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A local activist reached out to the I-TEAM, claiming his identity had been compromised by police officers across the state. He says because of what he does, he was searched through DAVID, a confidential Florida database that contains personal information. To see if this was more widespread, the I-TEAM submitted the names of several News4Jax employees to see who has searched their personal information. 

There are 918 different state and local agencies in Florida with access to DAVID, which stands for Driver and Vehicle Information Database. Collectively, their thousands of employees have access to all of your confidential information in the database. It has your driver's license number, home address, license plates, Social Security number, driving history, emergency contact information and every driver's license picture you have ever taken.

Because of all of the personal information it contains, Jeff Gray, a public records activist, became concerned when he found his information was accessed 200 times over a five-year period. He discovered he was searched on DAVID by employees across the state, including members of the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the Secret Service.

"It's creepy," said Gray. "That's the word that comes to mind is it's creepy."

Gray says he feels violated, so the I-TEAM reached out to sources and learned Gray is very well known to local law enforcement because of this YouTube channel called "Photography is not a Crime."

On it, Gray has an acute focus on the behavior of public officials, and he uploads videos of public officials he says are not obeying the laws.

"I want people to know you have a right to film public officials," Gray added.

Some of the DAVID searches conducted on Gray included the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office. We asked, and the Sheriff's Office told us their 34 searches of Gray are considered legitimate.

After filing a public complaint about his own searches, Gray says he often heard the same explanation, but he disagrees they were legitimate.

While researching Gray's concerns, we uncovered other abuses. The I-TEAM obtained a new internal audit by the city of Jacksonville and found a clerk of courts employee was disciplined for abusing DAVID. That worker accessed DAVID improperly 25 times on eight individuals including a spouse, siblings, a parent, and even themselves.

The I-TEAM submitted an open records request to the agency that oversees the database, the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. In that request, we included the names of our I-TEAM investigators as well as a random sample of News4Jax anchors, reporters and meteorologists. We waited months for results, but when we got them, found several suspicious hits:

Anchor/reporter Ashley Mitchem was accessed repeatedly by the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office by three different officers. Those searches included the viewing of past photographs of her.

Anchor/reporter Nikki Kimbleton was also accessed by JSO, but her search was in the cloak of secrecy because the official searching her was an undercover officer.

Anchor Joy Purdy was accessed questionably by the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office. Her searches were logged four times for "training" purposes or to teach another employee how to use the system. We learned the officers accessed her personal information repeatedly, including photos.

We then learned anchors/reporters Jennifer Waugh, Tarik Minor and Melanie Lawson were all accessed by one specific employee of the Florida Department of Children and Families. Her name is Judy, but as a courtesy, we are not releasing her last name as no charges have been filed against her.

When the I-TEAM called DCF about Judy's searches, the agency immediately launched an internal investigation. To get Judy's side of the story, we went to her home in Clay County. She recently retired from DCF, one month before our investigation began.

"The reason we're here is because your name popped up as looking into several of our employees at Channel 4 -- Jennifer Waugh, Tarik Minor and Melanie Lawson," we told her.

"No, they had a problem back in the day when I switched from my deceased mother to myself and I had some trouble over that, but they sent all the stuff to Tallahassee and it's fine," she responded.

However, DCF told a different story in a statement released to the I-TEAM. 

The department is absolutely committed to ensuring the security of personal information. We will never accept anyone jeopardizing the integrity of this agency in any way. DCF’s regional offices conduct regular audits of DAVID access and we are aggressively reviewing options to implement additional measures to detect, deter, and prevent any inappropriate reviews from occurring.

The DCF Office of Inspector General is currently conducting an investigation into whether DAVID searches of these individuals was for a legitimate business reason. The report will be posted on our website following the conclusion of the investigation. Should any potential criminal violations be found, the Office of Inspector General will immediately refer the information to law enforcement. In addition, DCF would also notify the individuals whose information was potentially compromised. [Judy's] employment with the department ended in December 2016."

But possible abuses at DCF didn't stop with Judy. We obtained years of internal investigations by DCF and uncovered six employees were found to have improperly searched DAVID. They were fired within a four-year span. An additional employee who was investigated resigned.

"I don't think the [DAVID] database is flawed," said Gray. "I think the flaw is whether or not there is oversight of the employees accessing it."

Response to oversight of DAVID searches

While the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles declined an on-camera interview with the I-TEAM about its oversight of DAVID searches, the agency responded in an email that:

  • Oversight is up to each of the 918 individual state agencies.
  • Each agency has to sign a yearly acknowledgment of that oversight.
  • A warning screen has been added to DAVID that tells users improper searches are illegal and punishable under the law.

The email also stated those training searches -- like we saw for Joy Purdy -- are no longer legal.

You may recall DAVID was the focus of a high-profile federal lawsuit filed by a South Florida state trooper. In 2011, trooper Donna Watts arrested an off-duty Miami police officer who was going 120 miles an hour.

After that arrest of the officer, Watts received harassing phone calls and discovered that 88 law enforcement officers from 25 different state agencies had used DAVID to access her personal information.

The lawsuit -- which included the names of two officers with JSO -- claimed they violated the federal Driver Privacy Protection Act. Watts settled with the city of Jacksonville in January of 2016, along with most of the other agencies she also sued.

Find out who is searching you on DAVID

If you would like to find out if you have been searched on DAVID, you can submit a public records request via email to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

Send your email to DAVIDPublicRecordRequest@flhsmv.gov, and be sure to include your full name, driver's license number and the time period you wish to request. Keep in mind, your request can only include a time period dating back four years.

VIDEO: How to find out if you've been searched

Depending on your request, there may be a fee associated in order to pay for the time it takes to process your request. The agency will notify you of any fees before fulfilling your request. It's the same fee the I-TEAM had to pay in order to have our requests processed. 

About the Authors:

Lynnsey Gardner is an Edward R. Murrow award-winning investigative reporter and fill-in anchor for The Local Station.