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Sheriff misusing FBI computer can't be sued

Appeals court nixes lawsuit against a Kansas sheriff who was database surfing for dirt on political enemies.

A federal appeals court said this week that the sheriff of Shawnee County, Kan., could not be sued for snooping through an FBI database for dirt on political enemies.

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals said Tuesday that David Meneley, who was sheriff until being ousted by the state on unrelated corruption charges, was immune from a civil lawsuit filed by Kansas residents he surreptitiously investigated through the FBI's Interstate Identification Index (III). Meneley was hoping to discredit local activists who had organized a petition drive in March 1999 to remove him from office.

Although the judges said they "strongly disapprove" of Meneley's actions, the appeals court concluded the former sheriff could not be sued on charges of violating the activists' First Amendment rights. There's no evidence that "their constitutional rights have been violated," the court said.

Meneley had typed the activists' names into the III, which provides state and local police with access to criminal history information in the FBI's National Crime Information Center network. The database includes records of anyone arrested for felonies or serious misdemeanors, a total of 50.5 million people as of December 2003.

In defending the federal lawsuit brought by activists Janet Price, Patricia McClellan and Kenneth Eaton, Meneley's lawyer argued that his client could not be sued because as a government official he enjoyed "qualified immunity" from lawsuits. Qualified immunity shields officials unless their conduct clearly violates rights protected by the U.S. Constitution or by law.

The appeals court agreed, saying the activists' First Amendment rights to express their views were not hindered: "Our case law recognizes that the nature of political debate is rough and tumble. Plaintiffs in public debates are expected to cure most misperceptions about themselves through their own speech and debate."

Meneley, who was first elected in November 1992, never did find any incriminating information about the people behind the recall petition.

He had claimed that he was acting on a tip about the background of petition sponsors, but could not produce notes or any other documentation to support that claim. After news leaked about Meneley's database accesses, some of the activists bailed out of the petition effort, and the recall movement ended with only about 15,000 signatures. At least 29,000 were necessary.

Federal law says that criminal history record information is supposed to be used only "for national security or criminal justice purposes authorized by law."

Eventually, in April 2001, the Kansas Supreme Court ousted Meneley after the state attorney general sued on charges of "willful misconduct in office." The trial court concluded Meneley had committed perjury and lied about a deputy who was stealing drugs seized as evidence, and the high court upheld the decision.