Former Mobile County License Commissioner Kim Hastie sent a gaggle of attorneys to Atlanta last month to continue a year-and-a-half-long appeal of her criminal conviction for improperly disseminating the email addresses of thousands of motorists.
Adding litigators from Hand Arendall to the roster, the Hanley Law Firm representing Hastie appeared before the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals Feb. 24 to challenge her lone conviction from a 2015 trial that saw 16 other, more serious corruption allegations tossed out by a jury.
Though there are multiple angles to Hastie’s appeal, it focuses on the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act (DPPA) she was convicted of violating, which prohibits employees of any department of motor vehicles from knowingly disclosing motorists’ personal information.
As Lagniappe has reported, Hastie has been convicted by a jury, sued civilly and condemned by the Alabama Ethics Commission for turning over 30,000 email addresses from a license commission database to a former employee of Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s 2013 campaign.
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In an audio recording of his oral arguments, Stewart Hanley noted that in the two decades since the DPPA became law, Hastie’s charge is only the second attempted prosecution under the law and the only one to make it to trial.
He argued the legislation is “not well written,” calling it “unconstitutionally vague” in a criminal context because it fails to specify exactly what is considered “personal information.” While DPPA never mentions email addresses, one of the judges said the law was written before “emails were as ubiquitous as they are today.”
The trial court in Mobile took a similar position ahead of Hastie’s trial when U.S. District Judge Kristi DuBose concluded that email addresses would constitute personal information in the context of the DPPA. However, Hastie’s attorneys have argued that by doing so, DuBose effectively took the power to make that determination out of the jury’s hands.
Litigator Doug McCoy also asserted DuBose likely committed an error of law in her charging instructions to the jury by including “email addresses” when describing personal information, which jurors also had questions about during their deliberation of the case.
In an attempt to show why certain types of personal information might have been expressly listed in the DPPA while others were not, McCoy briefly touched on the history of the law, which was introduced in response to information obtained from the department of motor vehicles being used to harass and even harm individuals.
One of the most notorious instances of abusing vehicle registration information was the 1989 murder of actress Rebecca Schaeffer, who was killed by a stalker that obtained her address from records held by a California DMV.
Fast forward to Hastie’s case, and McCoy claimed that an email couldn’t provide the type of information that “could lead to physical assaults, home invasions, and that kind of [thing].”
One of the judges on the bench called that part of McCoy’s argument “nonsense,” though, reminding him that online predators use email addresses to “lure underage girls into sexual encounters.” When McCoy said “underage girls’ email addresses wouldn’t be in the [license commission’s] records, judge asked, “Really? Sixteen-year-old girls in Mobile don’t drive?”
While the oral arguments of both sides were very brief, it could be months before a ruling comes down. The decision, whatever it is, will likely affect Hastie’s pending civil suit and could have an impact on whether she faces charges at the state level.
The Ethics Commission has unanimously agreed her actions violated Alabama’s ethics law. The findings of its investigation have been turned over to Attorney General Steven Marshall, whose office has declined to comment on the situation.