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Smarting sheriff tracks down critic

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By Henry Pierson Curtis | Sentinel Staff Writer

Posted April 6, 2005

Orange County Sheriff Kevin Beary has a vast array of computers designed to track down terrorists and criminals -- or a Winter Park mother of four.

Upset at being described as too fat for basic police work, Beary ordered his staff to use restricted records to find the woman who also criticized his agency's use of stun guns in a letter to the editor.

He then fired off a letter scolding Alice Gawronski, a 35-year-old registered Republican.

"I recently read your slanderous remarks about the Orange County Sheriff's Office in the Orlando Sentinel," Beary wrote on March 23. "It is unfortunate that people ridicule others without arming themselves with the facts before they slander a law enforcement agency or individual."

The letter caught Gawronski of Winter Park by surprise -- and she wonders whether Beary broke laws that protect the public's privacy.

"I thought I was exercising my First Amendment right of free speech -- expressing an opinion in an open forum about a paid public official," Gawronski said Tuesday, saying she considered Beary's letter a form of intimidation.

She also suspected Beary had snooped in restricted records because he addressed her as Alice Elizabeth Gawronski, using a middle name that appears only on her drivers license.

Members of Beary's staff confirmed Tuesday that they used Florida driving records to obtain Gawronski's address, but say doing so was within the sheriff's official duties.

Using that database to obtain personal information, except for clear law-enforcement purposes, has been a state and federal crime since 2000 when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Driver's Privacy Protection Act of 1994.

Privacy advocates say the use of restricted records is more significant than a tiff between a public official and a constituent. It comes at a time when police agencies are collecting vast databases of information on citizens in the name of homeland security.

"It is particularly disturbing that someone who has a leadership role on information-sharing does not seem to appreciate the crucial importance of privacy controls," said Jim Dempsey of the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington, D.C. "Any of these systems will be undermined, and they won't have the public trust, and they won't deserve the public trust and the public funding unless they have . . . controls to protect against misuse."

The Sheriff's Office stated in writing Tuesday that it acted within the law. Sheriff's spokesman Jim Solomons said responding to a resident's concern is well within Beary's official duties.

"Here we have a case where an elected official takes the time to respond to a constituent's misinformed allegations and a personal attack with an offer to ride a shift in a patrol car, (or walk in his shoes), in an effort to enhance her understanding of the daily issues a cop faces," Solomons said in a written response to Sentinel questions. "If there was anything sinister behind Sheriff Beary obtaining her mailing address would he have bothered to send her the letter?"

Beary would not be interviewed.

The senior counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center questioned the agency's claim of innocent intent.

"If I were her, I'd sue and get him in front of a jury. He'd probably get laughed out of the courtroom," Chris Hoofnagle said in a telephone interview from San Francisco. "This is the most common problem with surveillance -- who's watching the watchers."

The privacy law does not define what constitutes abuse -- only that a law-enforcement agency must use drivers-license records "in carrying out its functions."

Anyone who violates the law can be sued in U.S. District Court for damages of at least $2,500, punitive damages, attorney's fees and all other relief the court determines to be appropriate, records show.

In Florida, the security of drivers-license records and other databases is monitored by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Enforcing the appropriate use of each computer terminal usually is left up to the agency administrator. In this case, that would be Beary.

"We assume, if you will, that the agency administrator and the people who work for the agency administrator are using it for a lawful purpose until we are told otherwise," FDLE spokesman Tom Berlinger said upon being told about Beary's letter to Gawronski. "If she files a complaint, someone would investigate it. I don't know who that someone would be. Frankly, it might be us."

Gawronski has not filed a complaint.

Beary wrote his original letter nearly two weeks after Gawronski's letter to the editor appeared in the Sentinel on March 10.

On Tuesday, Gawronski said she wrote to the newspaper after her concerns about the possible abuse of Tasers peaked when an Orlando police officer zapped a suspect handcuffed to a hospital bed to obtain a urine specimen.

"The urine sample kind of put me over the edge, and I decided to write," she said.

In her letter to the editor, she referred to a televised news conference on June 3 when Beary allowed himself to be zapped with a Taser to demonstrate their safety.

Seeing Beary incapacitated by a single electrical shock of 50,000 volts and "in an obvious state of duress" convinced her the stun guns should not be used, she wrote.

Gawronski continued in her letter, writing that the sheriff appeared so overweight and out of shape that she doubted he could arrest anyone without a stun gun. She suggested that if deputies were more fit, they might not need to resort to stun guns.

Beary characterized her criticism as slander.

"During my Taser incident, I was never under any duress," he wrote Gawronski, adding that his heart activity was monitored by a doctor during the demonstration. A videotape of the zapping shows it rendered Beary senseless for 5.5 seconds.

In his letter to Gawronski, the sheriff did not state why he considered comments about his physical appearance to be slanderous. On the day of the news conference last summer, Beary estimated his weight at 290 pounds and height at 5 feet, 10 inches tall. There are no physical requirements for Beary, an elected official.

Gawronski remains concerned about how often police use stun guns but now is afraid they have too much information at their fingertips.

"After 9-11, they instituted the Patriot Act . . . and I was all for it, because if you don't commit a crime you have nothing to worry about," she said. "But, now, I see there are situations where access to information can be a problem. Everybody is human, and if the information is out there, it could be used for the wrong reasons."

Henry Pierson Curtis can be reached at 407-420-5257 or [email protected]

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