Judge: Sheriff’s secretary violated citizens’ privacy for her own entertainment

By: - February 22, 2023 5:35 pm

A Linn County secretary violated the privacy of privacy of “innumerable” citizens to satisfy her own need for entertainment, a judge has ruled. (Photo by Douglas Sacha/Getty Images)

A secretary for the Linn County Sheriff’s Department violated the privacy of “innumerable” citizens while searching for entertainment in the trauma of others, an Iowa judge has ruled.

The decision comes in the unemployment-benefits case of Shelby Burns, who was fired from the sheriff’s department last fall for using a law enforcement database to satisfy her own curiosity about a death and dozens of other police matters.

State records indicate Burns worked for the sheriff’s office from January 2008 through October 2022, with her most recent position being that of a full-time secretary in the criminal division’s detective bureau.

As a secretary in the detective bureau, Burns had access to several law enforcement databases, including the so-called “ILEADS database” that was set up to share information between the sheriff’s office and the Cedar Rapids Police Department.

As part of her job, Burns had access to the database for performing background checks and tasks related to the Iowa Sex Offender Registry, and she had been instructed not to use the database for personal reasons.

Burns also had access to a daily “pass on report,” which was sent to her email account each day. The report was sent out to alert recipients to the activities of the patrol officers from the sheriff’s department and police department during the previous shift. The sheriff’s department marked the “pass on reports” as confidential.

According to state records, on Aug. 17, 2022, Burns allegedly used the ILEADS database to access information, purely for personal reasons, about an unspecified “tragic death” in the community. Her actions were immediately noticed within the Cedar Rapids Police Department, which prompted employees there to contact the sheriff’s department.

According to testimony from the sheriff’s department at Burns’ recent unemployment hearing, Burns responded to questions about her actions by concocting an obviously fabricated story. That led to a broader Internal Affairs investigation into Burns’ conduct.

Major Chad Colston, who conducted the investigation, concluded in his written report that Burns had a pattern of accessing case information from the Cedar Rapids Police Department “to satisfy her curiosity or for her own amusement.”

Colston also alleged Burns repeatedly acted dishonestly during the investigation and had produced a written report “with very little details and truth.”

In total, Colston found that during one four-month period, Burns had improperly used the ILEADS database to access 55 case files she had no legitimate reason to see.

The county ultimately opted to fire Burns.

At Burns’ unemployment hearing, Administrative Law Judge Elizabeth Johnson took testimony and evidence from Burns and from sheriff’s office personnel. She sided with the county and denied Burns’ request for unemployment benefits.

“The ample testimony and documentation provided by the employer set forth example after example of (Burns) breaching the duty of confidentiality and the privacy of innumerable individuals whose information is contained within secure databases for specific, public safety purposes in order to satisfy her own curiosity and to find entertainment in the other people’s trauma,” Johnson ruled. “(Burns) now admits she did this, after lying about it in August 2022 when initially asked, after lying about it during the Internal Affairs investigation in September 2022, and after starting to lie about it during her testimony at the hearing.”

Johnson said Burns’ actions “demonstrate a callous disregard for the people served by the Cedar Rapids Police Department” and for the truth.

Burns declined to comment on the case when contacted by the Iowa Capital Dispatch.

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing.