Cop who snooped on couple faces civil trial
Police officers rarely face criminal charges when they use law enforcement databases to snoop on people for personal reasons — even though it’s against the law.
In Pembroke Pines, an officer pried into her boyfriend’s ex-wife and new husband 167 times in two years.
Officer Melodie Carpio admits she broke the law. She wasn’t charged and kept her job. Now she faces a civil suit from the couple for what they call an “astounding” number of violations.
The trial is scheduled to begin Tuesday in federal court in Miami.
Pembroke Pines police said the Broward State Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute Carpio, and her attorney says she could be fired if she misuses the database again or has another “lapse in judgment.” Her case is not unusual, though.
Because of appeals court rulings, state prosecutors generally don’t pursue criminal charges unless there is proof that the officer turned over the information to someone else or used it to commit another offense such as fraud, stalking or harassment, said Broward Assistant State Attorney Tim Donnelly.
In one notorious South Florida case, Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Donna “Jane” Watts received several financial settlements in civil suits after 88 law enforcement officers illegally looked up her personal information more than 200 times. She had made national news in 2011 when dashboard video was released that showed her pulling over off-duty Miami Police Officer Fausto Lopez at gunpoint for driving through Broward County in his marked patrol car at speeds of more than 120 mph. No criminal charges were ever filed against any of the officers who snooped on her.
Police officers are allowed to use the database for legitimate law enforcement purposes, such as a criminal investigation, a traffic stop or tracking down emergency contact information for an injured accident victim.
Training materials from the state warn officers that it’s against the law to use the database for unauthorized reasons like looking up a friend’s driver’s license photo, checking out family members’ driving records or looking up friends’ addresses for Christmas card mailing lists.
The husband and wife in the Pembroke Pines case, Claude Letourneau and Cindy Thibault, seek an unspecified amount of money in their lawsuit. Carpio, not Pembroke Pines, would have to pay any financial judgment against her.
The couple, a pilot and a nurse, allege they were harassed, felt unsafe and stressed, and were placed at greater risk of identity theft as a result of Carpio’s prying.
Some of the information available on the state’s Driver and Vehicle Information Database includes names, addresses, dates of birth, driving record, insurance, emergency contact and vehicle information.
Carpio, 41, admitted in sworn testimony that she accessed the couple’s personal information between 2014 and 2016 out of curiosity and that she had no legal reason to do so.
Carpio appears to have been motivated by the difficult divorce and “prickly” relationship between her boyfriend, who is also a Pembroke Pines police officer, and his ex-wife, Thibault. Carpio suggested she was concerned about the well-being of her boyfriend’s and Thibault’s daughter, who frequently stayed with Thibault and Letourneau under a shared custody order. Carpio’s boyfriend has not been accused of any illegal conduct.
“In apologizing … Carpio stated that ‘It sucks that sometimes our personal lives, yes, get the best of us and make us do stupid things, ya know?’” court records show.
Carpio’s attorney, Robert Buschel, argued that the professional punishment imposed on Carpio by her bosses is sufficient.
The police department forced Carpio to give up $18,000 worth of compensatory time she had earned, the equivalent of a three-month suspension. She was switched from a weekends-off schedule to a 3 p.m. to 1 a.m. shift that included working weekends. She was banned from working off-duty police details for one month, worth about $2,000.
She also volunteered to attend an employee assistance program and underwent re-training. Carpio’s prior record was good and she received several commendations, including one in 2009 for saving the life of a woman who was attempting suicide by drug overdose.
The defense says there’s no proof Carpio was responsible for complications that Letourneau and Thibault assert that they experienced.
The couple allege they received harassing emails; someone set up fake social media accounts to hassle them; Letourneau’s ex-wife was sent an anonymous letter that contained “disparaging” comments about them; and there were other suspicious incidents they suspect were linked to Carpio. They said they missed work days because of the stress and installed security cameras at their home.
“Stress, anger, uneasiness, always the feeling of being monitored, never feel[ing] secure everywhere you go, always hav[ing] to look around,” Letourneau testified when asked how he felt about what Carpio did.
“There’s a lot that’s been done to us. Abuse of the system, abuse of her power, abuse of her privileges to harass,” Letourneau added, explaining why he thinks Carpio should pay damages.
Pembroke Pines police officials disciplined Carpio after an internal affairs investigation in 2016, but she kept her job as a patrol officer. The 12-year veteran officer also works with the department’s Crisis Response Team, which handles incidents involving distressed people threatening to harm or kill themselves.
The investigation revealed she had improperly used the database more than 560 times between 2013 and 2016 to look up information about fellow officers, former co-workers and others she was curious about. She most often conducted searches on Letourneau and Thibault but also sought information about their relatives.
Since 2011, Pembroke Pines police have used a coding system that requires officers to enter a legal reason for searches, which they said Carpio filled out improperly. Officers must agree to use the database for law enforcement reasons every time they sign on.
“That she continuously claims she meant no harm by engaging in this conduct … makes punitive damages more appropriate, because she ignores that she did cause harm and is trying to justify or excuse the fact that she repeatedly abused her extraordinary power and access in the name of being ‘very curious,’” the couple’s attorneys, Michael Glasser and Eric Rudenberg, wrote in court records.
In court, the defense argued that the couple suffered no real damages and that they are entitled to a total of $5,000 – $2,500 each – which is the civil penalty for violating the federal Driver’s Privacy Protection Act on one occasion. Congress passed the law in the 1990s to protect the privacy of personal information stored in driver and motor vehicle records. The law was inspired by the murder of actress Rebecca Schaeffer, who was killed by a stalker who obtained her unlisted address from state driver’s license records.
Carpio and her attorney, Buschel, declined to comment because of the upcoming trial. Glasser, Rudenberg, and their clients also did not comment.