CINCINNATI (TDB) -- The U.S. Constitution's "right to privacy" does not cover an Ohio woman who claimed she became the victim of identity-theft because Hamilton County Clerk of Courts Greg Hartmann's office routinely posted public records on the Internet in an effort to broaden access. A federal judge dismissed Cynthia Lambert's lawsuit last week and found that the government's interest in disseminating information can trump an individual's expectation of keeping it private.
The case appears to be the first of its kind decided in a federal court, and at this point is a victory for those who favor few restrictions on Internet access to public records and government documents. However, there is likely to be an appeal.
Hartmann was the Republican candidate for Ohio Secretary of State last year, and he had posted millions of records on his office Web site -- everything from divorces to traffic tickets and citations for unpaid taxes. The records are open to public inspection by law in Ohio. Hartmann's policy extended them to the Internet, which extended access to the entire world. At one time, he had about 6 million records posted on the Web. Access has been curtailed over the past year because of ID-theft abuses. Lambert was the first victim to sue the county for financial damages.
In September 2003, Lambert received a speeding ticket in Blue Ash, Ohio, a Cincinnati suburb, and the officer filled out the Ohio Uniform Traffic Ticket form, which included her name, signature, address, birth date, driver's license and Social Security numbers. The ticket was published on the county Web site.
About a year later, Lambert got calls from a Sam's Club store that somebody using her identity had bought $8,000 worth of electronics, and a Home Depot, where $12,000 was charged to a credit card in her name. Lambert learned that an ID thief used an Ohio driver's license to open the accounts. All identifying factors used by the crook matched Lambert except one -- the license number was a single digit different than her own. When Lambert checked the county Web site, she found the speeding ticket posted there was off by the same digit due to an error by the citing officer in Blue Ash.
In 2004 she filed suit in U.S. District Court claiming economic damages, harm to her reputation and credit rating and violation of her privacy rights. (Southern District of Ohio, 1:04-cv-837.)
U.S. District Judge Michael H. Watson said he was sympathetic to Lambert, but added the issues she raised were not proper for a federal lawsuit. ''The court determines that plaintiff's alleged privacy interest in her name, signature, home address, birth date, driver's license number and Social Security number do not implicate either a fundamental right or one implicit in the concept of ordered liberty. Plaintiff has only identified a risk of financial harm,'' Watson wrote.
Watson said Lambert could refile her lawsuit in the state court system to pursue any claims under Ohio law, including a right to be free from identity theft. ''The court finds that the issues presented are more appropriate for resolution by the state court system and therefore the court declines to exercise its supplemental jurisdiction,'' he said.