From the other side of the glass, underwater performer Whitney Fair’s life might look like it’s all mermaid tails, twirling and blowing kisses.
“We have underwater burlesque shows on Friday and Saturday nights, and then on Sunday we have an all-ages mermaid show,” Fair said.
But on dry land, she isn’t some mythical creature. She’s a very real Floridian with a very real problem. It started when the underwater performers at the Wreck Bar in Fort Lauderdale had a falling out.
“This swimmer was let go. Her husband works with law enforcement, and I started to see personal, private information of my mine talked about publicly on social media,” Fair said.
An internal investigation at the Broward County Sheriff’s Office found that Lt. Jeffrey Mellies searched Fair and his wife’s other former coworkers’ names in a state-run database.
Under purpose code, it says “criminal investigation” – even though a sheriff’s office record says none of the women were under investigation.
“It just felt like such a violation,” Fair said.
Got a Florida driver's license? Your personal info is in there, too:
That database is called DAVID. It stands for Driver and Vehicle Information Database.
It’s meant to be a tool for government agencies, including law enforcement, to confirm information about Florida drivers.
“You can find out a tremendous amount of info about anybody that’s in that system. And everybody is in that system,” State Sen. Ed Hooper said, a Palm Harbor Republican.
Sound familiar? We told you about DAVID misuse in 2020.
DAVID gives users access to every Florida driver’s license number, photos, address, signature, medical and disability information, Social Security number, date of birth, vehicle information and emergency contact info.
In 2020, 10 Investigates revealed that agencies reported employees misused their access to DAVID more than 900 times since 2015 – using it as an investigative shortcut or for personal reasons.
The misuse ranged from looking up addresses for Christmas cards to tracking an ex-girlfriend and setting fire to her and her friend's property.
Our story led to changes in state law.
But despite the attention we brought to DAVID misuse, we uncovered government workers are still abusing their access to Floridians’ sensitive personal information.
In fact, it got even worse last year.
We crunched state data and found agencies reported to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles (FLHSMV) that they caught their employees misusing DAVID 116 times in 2019, 137 times in 2020 and 152 times in 2021.
There have already been 61 reports in 2022.
“It continues to rise because they get away with it, time and time again,” Fair said.
The effort to prevent misuse:
According to FLHSMV, each agency that has access to DAVID must sign an annual certification with the department saying they will follow all rules and regulations regarding the use of that protected information since it’s protected under both the Federal Driver Privacy Protection Act and Florida law.
Each agency with access to DAVID is required to do quarterly audits and report to the FLHSMV if any personal identifying information has been compromised within 30 days.
“Agencies reporting employee misuse of the DAVID system to the department, as required, is evidence that the controls in place for this system are working as designed,” FLHSMV Director of Communications Aaron Keller said.
The FLHSMV also does “site visits” where it reviews at least 10 random users’ DAVID usage for compliance. DAVID users must select an acknowledgment that they understand the possible criminal and civil sanctions for misuse each time they access the system.
After seeing our story in 2020, Hooper introduced a bill that became law in 2021 to help prevent people from misusing databases like DAVID in two ways.
- First, by quadrupling fines for government workers who misuse electronic databases from $500 to $2,000.
- Second, by requiring officers to get more training on how to use those databases appropriately.
We checked and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) did add that training.
But, earlier this year, the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office said one of its deputies looked up women on DAVID for no legitimate reason five times – including the very next day after he completed DAVID usage training through FDLE.
The sheriff’s office said one of the women Deputy Scott Kelly looked up told the agency they exchanged explicit photos and another woman reported he tried to get her to meet up for sex while he was working.
Sheriff’s office records also said Kelly had women’s info from DAVID saved on his personal cellphone.
The sheriff’s office said it discovered Kelly’s DAVID misuse after a mom reported he sent an explicit photo to her teen daughter, who he met on the job.
“When a public official utilizes his badge and his uniform to gain personal benefit, it not only reflects on the law enforcement profession, but it deeply impacts the men and women who wear the uniform every day and do the job the right way,” said Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office Community Affairs Director Kaitlyn Perez in a video statement on March 30, after Kelly’s arrest.
Sheriff’s office records said Kelly submitted a handwritten resignation after his arrest.
He was initially criminally charged with violating public records law – which we reported in 2020 is rare.
But all five of those charges were later dropped.
Perez told 10 Investigates in an email, “After review by the State… elements of Kelly’s misuse of DAVID have been determined to be more appropriate for possible civil action. Detectives have communicated the State’s findings to the adult women whose information was accessed.”
Kelly entered a plea of not guilty on a charge of transmission of harmful material to a minor.
Kelly’s lawyer told us he did not want to be interviewed for this story.
It’s now up to the state’s Criminal Justice Standards & Training Commission to decide if Kelly will lose his state certification that allows him to be a sworn officer in Florida.
Perez told 10 Investigates members of the sheriff’s office plan to attend the hearing to advocate for the revocation of Kelly’s certification.
Since 2015, law enforcement agencies have referred 144 officers to the CJSTC for potential discipline on their certifications for DAVID misuse. Only 15 of those officers’ certifications – 10 percent – rose to the level of being disciplined by the commission.
Another seven officers gave up their certifications voluntarily.
Commission staff found the other 122 cases didn’t have evidence to prove bad intent or what the CJSTC calls a “moral character violation.”
“Only the most extreme cases go before the Criminal Justice Standards & Training Commission. Employers have the ability to discipline their employees and they do. So, these are only the most extreme cases, only involving law enforcement certifications,” FDLE Communications Director Gretl Plessinger said.
10 Investigates brought our new findings to Hooper, who pushed for changes to state law last time.
“Like a lot of the bills that we pass, once they’re passed, we move on. Somebody formulates some rules and adopts those rules, and off they go. We hope it works as intended. Obviously, it’s not,” Hooper said.
As he runs for reelection in parts of Pinellas and Pasco counties, he says he plans to revisit this issue.
“I can’t do anything, legislatively, until after the November election. Between now and then… I plan to get with the Senate General Counsel and come up with a plan to at least be able to gather and speak to either the agency heads, the commission representatives, and let’s find out, where are we coming up short?” Hooper said.
Underwater performer sues sheriff:
“Something needs to happen, not just a slap on the wrist. Because then it continues to rise. This is going to be an ongoing problem,” Fair said.
Fair and another underwater performer are suing Broward County Sheriff Gregory Tony and Mellies.
That lawsuit says, “it was common knowledge… that violations and suspected violations of the DAVID system… would not be routinely investigated and that any violation would not receive a significant sanction including no punishment at all.”
A spokesperson said the sheriff’s office “does not typically comment on pending litigation.”
Broward County Sheriff’s Office records show it suspended Mellies for five days without pay for DAVID misuse and other policy violations.
The sheriff’s office sent his certification to the CJSTC for possible discipline and forwarded his case file to the State Attorney’s Office to review for criminal charges.
Mellies has not been charged and is still working for the sheriff’s office. Mellies’ attorney told 10 Investigates he did not want to be interviewed for this story.
“This could happen to anyone. I would never have thought this could happen to me,” Fair said.
If you suspect DAVID misuse, you can submit a complaint to the FLHSMV.
You can also submit a public records request for DAVID searches of your name. To request your search history, email DAVIDPublicRecordRequest@flhsmv.gov and include your full name, driver's license number and the time period you want to request.