MIAMI (CBSMiami) – It’s been two years since Trooper Donna Jane Watts stopped an off-duty Miami police officer as he tore through Broward County at speeds approaching 120 mph.
The dash board video of the seven minute chase culminated with Watts pulling out her gun and ordering the Miami police officer, Fausto Lopez, out of his patrol car so she could handcuff him and lead him on that most ignominious to the back of her car.
The video, and Watts chastising the officer for being reckless enough to speed, went viral. In essence, this was Watts’ introduction to the world.
As the sun rose that morning, neither Watts nor Lopez could imagine how their lives were about to change forever.
Lopez was issued a reckless driving citation and was ultimately fired by the Miami Police Department.
Watts is also off the road, but by her own choosing. She remains with the Florida Highway Patrol but no longer looks for speeders because she is afraid her fellow officers would no longer back her up in an emergency.
The public largely viewed the curly-haired Watts as a hero. A Facebook page – I Support Donna Jane Watts – was created in her honor.
But many police officers saw Watts’ actions as a betrayal. Cops don’t treat other cops that way, they argued. Message boards catering to police officers were filled with threats and long rants against Watts.
Retaliation ensued. A trooper was stopped by a Miami officer on a traffic infraction. Another high profile trooper had his car covered in human excrement.
In the midst of the uproar over Watts’ actions, dozens upon dozens of police officers, across the state of Florida, logged into a special, confidential database and ran Watts name through the system discovering where she lived, what she looked like, and did she ever get any speeding tickets. They also gained access to her home and cell phone numbers, as well as her social security number.
Watts may be off the road but her battles remain. She is now suing at least 100 police officers as well as more than two dozen police and sheriff’s departments across the state.
According to the lawsuit, when Watts learned from state officials how many cops had looked up her information, she “started to experience physical symptoms to include dry heaves and nausea when performing basic activities such as opening her mailbox [or] starting her ignition.”
“Watts has been forced to significantly alter her social activities and has in effect become a hermit.”
Arguing that her privacy rights have been violated, she is embarking on one of the largest federal lawsuits of its kind in the country.
Some cities and police departments have quietly settled. CBS4 News has confirmed the following payouts:
Margate – $10,000
Seminole County- $3,500;
Hillsborough County- $9,000;
South Miami- $13,500;
Palm Beach Gardens- $4,500
Village of Key Biscayne- $14,500.
Total so far – $66,500. But with some of the biggest departments still left – including Miami and Miami Dade – Watts’ claims might be worth hundreds of thousands more before it’s over.
Watts’ lawsuit and settlements have reverberated all the way to Washington, where the National Association of Police Organizations is pushing for a change in federal law that would essentially allow officers to access state motor vehicle records even when there is no legitimate law enforcement purpose.
“It’s not limited to South Florida but all over the country individual officers are starting to be sued by civil attorneys in federal court,” said Bill Johnson, executive director of NAPO.
While the officer could still be disciplined by his department, he doesn’t think they should be automatically fined every time they invade someone’s privacy out of curiosity. And he questioned the motives of someone like Donna Jane Watts who does sue.
CBS4 News requested an interview with Watts. In email, Watts explained her decision not to sit down, writing: “I already have a target on my back.”
In her email, Watts also revealed the struggle she’s been facing and why she is suing her fellow officers. “The lawsuit is not about the money,” she wrote, “but the invasion of my privacy by law enforcement officers in Florida, ranking officers included.”
She noted that people often complaining about the federal government – particularly the NSA – violating people’s rights, “but I’m suppose to roll over because it is police officers, my brothers and sisters. Bullcrap! Sometimes, the only way you get agencies to accept responsibilities and correct things is through lawsuits.”
She went on to write: “All of this has cost us financially and emotionally immensely, and all because cops chose to violate my privacy. Something is horribly wrong when I did nothing wrong but I’m the one having to relocate.”
As Watts continues her battle, Lopez is fighting to get his job back. He is appealing his firing and arbitrator should have a decision within the next 30 days.