One cop’s fight to keep personal info secret
A Boston law firm defending a Massachusetts state trooper in a civil lawsuit recently ran into a worrisome problem. The plaintiff in the case had included in his complaint information about where the trooper lives — a move the officer, who claims to have been the subject of death threats, vehemently opposed because of its potentially life-threatening implications.
They reached out to PoliceOne for help.
Digging for evidence to support the trooper’s position, his attorneys, Damian LaPlaca and Sarah Willey of Donovan Hatem LLP, discovered a widely reprinted two-part series PoliceOne ran more than four years ago (links to those articles are in the sidebar to the right). Those articles dealt with retaliation by vengeful offenders and included a dramatic account of an officer attacked at home after suspects were able to learn where he lived.
Willey asked their law clerk, Anna Slyuzberg, to contact PoliceOne and ask what additional data might be available to prove that the threat of home-targeted revenge is a legitimate concern for LEOs.
In little more than 24 hours, LaPlaca was able to appear before Judge Peter Velis in Hampden County Superior Court with a sheaf of examples of attacks or threats on cops’ home turf, including personal accounts by PoliceOne members who have been victimized.
The judge promptly granted a motion that will protect the trooper’s privacy. Here’s how the case developed...
When not on the road for the Massachusetts State Police, the trooper works as CEO for a firm in central Massachusetts that he founded in 2003. The company is a U.S. government contractor, specializing in the design, manufacturing, and marketing of small arms components and accessories, including folding and fixed sights, combat grips, rails, slings, and upgrade kits.
The plaintiff worked there a couple of years, first as a consultant, then as an employee, and eventually became a minor stockholder. Their relationship ended earlier this year. The trooper claims the man resigned, the plaintiff alleges he was unjustly and illegally booted out. He sued for wrongful termination and other grievances, naming among others the trooper, the trooper’s wife, and Willey, the company’s general counsel, in his complaint.
Willey, in addition to being a lawyer with Donovan Hatem, is the wife of a police chief in a town near the trooper’s firm. Their city of residence, which is different from where her husband is chief, was named in the complaint, and in subsequent filings their street address and home phone number were identified. The town and specific street where the trooper lives were also named. Both parties were alarmed for the safety of their families.
The Basis of Fear
The trooper, for example, has had his residence placed in a trust and hires an attorney to pay all his household bills through the trust to keep the home’s location from becoming public.
The plaintiff, who is believed to have been employed in law enforcement in the past, was aware of the safety concerns, LaPlaca noted. He was asked to withdraw his complaint and re-file it without listing the residence information. He refused to do so.
His lawyer asserted that the alleged death threats were unsubstantiated in official records, that he trooper on occasion has drawn attention to his home himself by parking his patrol car outside, and that personal information about the defendants was available through other public venues, including the Internet.
Failing to get voluntary cooperation, LaPlaca filed an “emergency motion for impoundment,” asking the court to rule on the privacy concerns. Unless the court ordered to the contrary, the residential information in the complaint would be accessible as part of a public record, putting the police families “in immediate and irreparable harm.”
A hearing on the matter was scarcely 24 hours away when Anna Slyuzberg emailed PoliceOne, seeking “evidence of police officers or their families being targeted off-duty” at their homes that LaPlaca could use to support his motion.
The Rapid Response
Overnight, I sent a copy of my new Calibre Press book Blood Lessons, which graphically describes revenge attacks on two officers, including a Nevada trooper who was blinded and permanently maimed by a package bomb mailed to his home by a traffic violator he’d ticketed.
During the night, the PoliceOne Newsletter issued an appeal to its 135,000-plus readers worldwide, urging them to report on any personal experiences with vengeful suspects. The responses that resulted showed that the concern is by no means a figment of anyone’s paranoid imagination.
Officers told of late-night trespasses onto their personal property, of vandalism of personal vehicles, stalking, threats, and intimidations of spouses and kids — all by subjects looking to settle a beef with those who’d had enforcement contact with them. All echoed the sentiment of an Alabama sergeant who wrote: “Protect your personal information in every way possible.”
On the day of the hearing, PoliceOne continued to email Newsletter responses to Damian LaPlaca’s BlackBerry up to the moment he walked into court.
The Court Ruling
Stressing the importance of secrecy, Velis ruled that all references to the defendants’ residences be removed from any public documents as the case moves forward.
As the trooper and Willey expressed their relief afterward, Willey remarked that the immediate help from PoliceOne and the law enforcement community “takes my breath away,” adding:
“It’s very hard for officers to keep a low profile in this day and age. But it is important to take whatever steps you can to reduce your visibility and limit your exposure.”
As a Canadian sergeant commented in responding to the PoliceOne Newsletter request for help: “Life changes when you make the choice to go into law enforcement; friends change, family routines change, and the risk factor goes beyond that of any non-LEO citizen.
“With all those stressors, our private lives and certainly our family must be shielded from the unsavory element we deal with as part of our daily profession. My personal information in the [wrong] hands is enough to make me shudder when I think of what they might be capable of doing. Everyone in our business needs to be diligent about this.”
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