Smarting sheriff tracks down critic By Henry Pierson Curtis Sentinel Staff Writer
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.