After more than a month of deliberation, the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld Mobile County Revenue Commissioner Kim Hastie’s 2015 conviction for illegally disseminating the email addresses of 30,000 local motorists to a political campaign.
The conviction resulted from Hastie’s decision to turn over 30,000 email addresses from a database at the Mobile County License Commission to an employee of Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s 2013 campaign. The misdemeanor incident led to Hastie being convicted twice criminally, sued civilly and condemned by the Alabama Ethics Commission.
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In February, litigators from Hand Arendall and local attorney Stuart Hanley argued for a reversal of Hastie’s conviction under the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act (DPPA) before a panel of three judges, which included Alabama native William H. Pryor Jr., Adalberto Jordan and the 7th Circuit’s Kenneth F. Ripple.
The panel agreed with the results of the trial court, which determined information protected under the DDPA — a federal law prohibiting employees of a department of motor vehicles from knowingly disclosing motorists’ personal information — would apply to email addresses even though they aren’t expressly written into the statute.
Despite her attorney’s claims Hastie didn’t know email addresses were covered by the DPPA, the court believes the United States offered evidence at trial showing Hastie was aware of what she was doing “because she attempted to hide the source of the emails and later lied about her behavior” in an interview with a local television station.
The most significant issue discussed was whether U.S. District Judge Kristi DuBose erred in her jury instructions in Hastie’s 2015 trial by including “email addresses” when describing personal information — a point jurors also raised questions about during deliberation.
“Ms. Hastie asked the district court to give the jury the statutory definition of ‘personal information’ and allow it to decide whether email addresses constitute ‘information that identifies an individual,’” Jordan wrote in his dissenting opinion. “The district court refused, and instead told the jury that, as a matter of law, the term ‘personal information’ includes email addresses. That, in my view, was a reversible constitutional error.”
Jordan felt that error entitled Hastie to a new trial, writing it had effectively let the judge and not the jury decide an important element of her criminal conviction. Pryor and Ripple felt otherwise.
In the majority opinion, Pryor wrote the trial court would have only violated Hastie’s constitutional rights had it told the jury the specific emails discussed in Hastie’s case were considered personal information under the law. Instead, Pryor said DuBose’s instructions simply “provided the jury a definition at a higher level of generality” by explaining “‘personal information’ means information that identifies an individual, including an individual’s email address.”
While it’s unclear what might be next for Hastie and her defense team, the confirmation of her conviction won’t have much of an impact initially. Back in 2015, her attorney, Neil Hanley, said a conviction under the DPPA was “less than a misdemeanor,” and the only sentence imposed by the court was a $5,000 fine, which Hastie has already paid.
However, if the decision isn’t appealed again, the resolution of Hastie’s criminal case would allow a civil lawsuit against her and the county to move forward for the first time since 2015. Anitra Diamond and Labarron Yates claim theirs were among the 30,000 email addresses Hastie released to the Stimpson campaign in 2013, and the appeals court’s decision to uphold the former license commissioner’s conviction bodes well for their case.
That lawsuit names Hastie as a defendant as an individual and in her official capacity as the Mobile County License Commissioner and as a Mobile County employee when the offense occurred.
Recently, Mobile County’s attorney, Jay Ross, told Lagniappe the Mobile County Commission was looking into what — in any — liability it might have in the lawsuit. However, he said many of those issues had not been vetted because the lawsuit was stayed by a judge throughout the course of Hastie’s two-year appeal.
However, according to the lawsuit’s complaint, the DPPA assesses a $2,500-per-violation penalty for any personal information disseminated for unapproved reasons. If proved accurate, that fee could theoretically be applied to each of the 30,000 bits of information allegedly given to the Stimpson campaign, for a total penalty of as much as $75 million.