Florida Highway Patrol says the number of hit-and-run crashes is increasing in Palm Beach County and elsewhere.
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The Florida Highway Patrol trooper at the center of firestorm after she pulled over a speeding cop at gunpoint said fellow law enforcement officers have created a "life-threatening" situation that caused her to be in such fear for her safety she has become a "hermit."
Trooper Donna "Jane" Watts' 69-page lawsuit, filed in federal court Friday, seeks more than $1 million in damages. She is suing more than 100 police officers and agencies, and the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. The suit alleges 88 law enforcement officers from 25 jurisdictions illegally accessed her personal information more than 200 times, violating her privacy.
Watts made national news in October 2011 when she pulled over off-duty Miami Police Officer Fausto Lopez for speeding in his marked patrol car on Florida's Turnpike in Broward County.
She followed him for seven minutes and later wrote in a report that he was darting in and out of lanes at speeds exceeding 120 mph. She approached his cruiser with her gun drawn, yelling, and then handcuffed him.
Lopez, who regularly averaged more than 100 mph on his drive between Miami and his home in Coconut Creek, was fired in September.
But in the months after the incident, officers looked up information such as her home address, picture, Social Security number, date of birth, and detailed vehicle description in a database available to police officers, according to her lawsuit.
The suit alleges the police agencies — including the Broward Sheriff's Office, Lauderhill and Hollywood Police — did not properly train their officers, who used the information they received to intimidate Watts. None of the agencies were able to comment Monday.
Other agencies have already settled with her and so are not named in the lawsuit, according to Watts' attorney Mirta Desir. Margate, for example, settled for $10,000 after two of its police officers accessed her private information, said Margate city attorney Gene Steinfeld.
The two Margate officers each received a letter of reprimand as punishment.
"The law had indeed been broken," said Steinfeld on Monday.
Watts said after the incident she received random calls on her home and cell phones, some threatening. Pranksters ordered pizza delivery to her house, according to the suit. Watts, who lives on a cul-de-sac, said several vehicles would also stop in front of her driveway or idle on her street.
The suit states that Watts has been so upset about the privacy violations that she has "started to experience physical symptoms to include dry heaves and nausea when performing basic activities such as opening her mailbox, starting her ignition, or when being followed by a law enforcement vehicle for no apparent reason."
Watts began opening her mailbox from the side instead of from the front in case there was something in it.
The suit states that Watts' supervisors "do not believe that it would ever be safe for her to return to road patrol" and that Watts believes if she ever need police backup in an emergency, it would not be provided. More than a dozen troopers from her own agency also looked up her personal information.
She is also in the process of moving, according to the suit.
"This is an invasion of privacy," Desir said. "Law enforcement does have access to information most residents don't and with that level of access there should come a certain amount of care. ... This is something that is not supposed to be done."
When Watts pulled over Lopez, the incident was caught on the trooper's dashboard camera. "This is not a first-time occurrence with y'all," Watts told Lopez after pulling him over. "Y'all come from that way all the time, this Miami police car, and we never catch it."
Lopez apologized and tried to explain he was running late. "With all due respect ...," he said, but Watts cut him off. "You don't respect me, sir," she said. "You don't respect these people out here."
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