Thursday, April 07, 2005

What's Scarier: a Redneck with a Taser, or a Redneck with a Database? 

From the Orlando Sentinel, a story that has everything: homeland security, invasion of privacy, tasers, urine, obesity . . . . did we mention the urine?

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 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 . . . .

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 . . . .

"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."

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