Federal Appeals Court Affirms Civil Penalties in Privacy Act Case

A federal appeals court held that the Privacy Act provides monetary damages for harms stemming from inaccurate government records. The case arose in 2006 when Julia Shearson and her four-year-old daughter, both U.S. citizens, reentered the country over the Canadian border. A customs database incorrectly identified Shearson as "ARMED AND DANGEROUS," after which she was handcuffed, questioned for several hours, and then released without explanation. Shearson sued under the Privacy Act and sought damages from the Department of Homeland Security for the agency's failure to ensure the accuracy of its computer records. DHS argued that the Privacy Act permitted the agency to exempt itself from monetary damages provision of the law. The Sixth Circuit disagreed and held that Congress specifically intended that the Privacy Act provide civil remedies for government failures to comply with the Act's mandatory duties. EPIC routinely files comments on the obligation of federal agencies to comply with the Privacy Act and EPIC has also filed a Supreme Court brief in support of damage awards in Privacy Act cases. For more information, see EPIC: Doe v. Chao (US 2004).

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