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A Utah district court judge has reaffirmed the ruling from a justice court earlier this year: Police officers can't search driver license records if they aren't investigating a crime.
Third District Judge Randall Skanchy's Tuesday ruling is rooted in a 2014 traffic court case, when Joshua Barmore was pulled over on a West Valley street last October and cited for driving on a suspended license.
But prior to the traffic stop, the 26-year-old driver wasn't visibly breaking any law he wasn't speeding, he wasn't driving erratically and his car had no equipment violations.
The West Valley officer who pulled him over had searched Utah driver license database "during a lull in observing traffic violations," according to court records, and saw that Barmore's license had been suspended for an alcohol-related offense. Barmore was given a citation for a class B misdemeanor.
West Valley City Justice Court Judge Brendan McCullagh ruled in March that the officer had accessed that database "without any reasonable suspicion that the defendant had violated any local, state or federal law." This search was a violation of Barmore's Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable government search and seizure, according to the judge, who deemed the interaction an "illegal stop."
McCullagh ruled that all evidence obtained from the driver license search be suppressed.
West Valley prosecutors then asked for a "de novo" review at the district court, which is the equivalent of an appeal.
In court papers filed with Skanchy in district court, city prosecutors argued that policing requires preliminary investigative work prior to having a suspicion of criminal activity. Because an officer's duties include ensuring that vehicles comply with traffic laws on public roads, the city argued that running a license plate number to get protected information is akin to an ongoing investigation and enforcing of laws.
But Barmore's attorney, Jon Williams, argued that the search was a violation of Utah's Government Records Access and Management Act and was "not necessary to a proceeding or investigation."
"The officer was simply searching through potentially numerous citizens' protected records without reason to believe any one individual was committing a criminal offense," Williams wrote. "He was fishing and fishing for crimes, without a factual basis whatsoever, cannot be a basis for disclosure of protected records."
In his Tuesday decision, Skanchy sided with the defendant, saying that the GRAMA statute includes language that limits law enforcement's access to protected records.
"Because the running of his plates without suspicion of a crime was not justified at its inception, the stop for a suspended license was based on inadmissible evidence," Skanchy wrote.
Williams said Thursday that he believes Skanchy correctly analyzed the law.
"We are confident that any other court presented with these facts will rule that the privacy interests of every citizen of Utah is more important than the police randomly searching all of our protected information," Williams said. "I think this could change the way law enforcement goes about its daily activities."
The defense attorney said legislators have deemed driver license records as "protected" in the same category as medical and mental health records. He said if police are able to access the driver license records when they aren't investigating a crime, "there's nothing stopping them" from accessing other private records.
"I don't think the public is aware that we need to make sure that our information stays protected unless it's a legitimate investigation," Williams said.
Prosecutor Ryan Robinson said Friday that his office "respects the decision" made by Skanchy. Because a de novo review cannot be appealed, he said, the judge's ruling is final and Barmore's case will be dismissed.
Whether the ruling has more far-reaching effects on the city or state remains to be seen, Robinson said.
"We'll have to see what the effect is at this stage," he said. "It's not an appellate court, it's not a published opinion and does not have a binding effect on the state. But people will become more aware of it, and we might see a similar case appealed [to the Utah Court of Appeals.]"
Police use of regulatory databases has become a contentious issue in Utah. Two Unified Fire Authority firefighters have contended their privacy, and perhaps their rights, were violated when Cottonwood Heights police accessed their records in a state prescription-drug database during an investigation.
Also, Utah's police council has disciplined a handful of officers over the years for accessing driver licenses and police databases to track estranged spouses, family members, acquaintances and others without having a law-enforcement purpose.