updated 4/6/2005 3:28:30 PM ET 2005-04-06T19:28:30

Orange County’s sheriff used driver’s license records to contact a woman who wrote a letter to the editor of a newspaper criticizing his staff’s use of Taser stun guns and describing him as fat.

Some say Orange County Sheriff Kevin Beary violated federal privacy law when he had his aides use the records to get the address of Alice Gawronski. He sent her a letter accusing her of slander.

It is illegal to access a driver’s license database to obtain personal information, except for clear law-enforcement purposes, under the U.S. Driver’s Privacy Protection Act of 1994.

“I recently read your slanderous remarks about the Orange County Sheriff’s Office in the Orlando Sentinel,” Beary wrote Gawronski on March 23. “It is unfortunate that people ridicule others without arming themselves with the facts before they slander a law enforcement agency or individual.”

Reader felt intimidated
Gawronski said, “I thought I was exercising my First Amendment right of free speech — expressing an opinion in an open forum about a paid public official.” She considered Beary’s letter a form of intimidation.

“If I were her, I’d sue and get him in front of a jury. He’d probably get laughed out of the courtroom,” said Chris Hoofnagle, the senior counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

But sheriff’s spokesman Jim Solomons said using a database to respond to a resident’s concern is well within Beary’s official duties.

The issue arose when Gawronski’s letter appeared in the Sentinel on March 10, expressing concerns about Taser stun guns.

Sheriff felt slandered
In her letter, she referred to a news conference when Beary allowed himself to be zapped with one to demonstrate its safety. Seeing Beary “in an obvious state of duress” convinced her the stun guns should not be used, she wrote.

Gawronski also wrote that Beary appeared overweight and suggested that if deputies were more fit, they might not need to resort to zapping suspects.

Beary said he was a victim of slander.

“During my Taser incident, I was never under any duress,” he wrote Gawronski, adding that his heart activity was monitored by a doctor. The 5-foot, 10-inch Beary estimated his weight at 290 pounds.

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