Woman receives bill after making restroom pit stop
ERIN, Tenn. (NBC) -- A license plate gives police a whole lot of information about you, and law enforcement is supposed to protect those details. However, one local sheriff admits he gave a driver's name and address away, and the reason he did it is downright bizarre.
The story all came about when a woman stopped to use a restaurant's restroom and then left without buying anything.
A few days later, the woman checked her mail to find a bill from that restaurant, asking her to pay for using their restroom. And it turns out the sheriff, himself, helped the restaurant's owners track her down.
"I just feel like I've been violated," Patricia Barnes said.
Barnes received a handwritten letter that asked for $5 because she used the restroom at The Flood Zone in Houston County.
She and her husband said they aren't upset about the bill, rather they are outraged at the sheriff's involvement.
"People don't have the right to just run your tags and give your information out to just anybody," said the woman's husband, Randy Edwards.
The restaurant's owners wrote down Barnes' license plate number as she drove away and then asked Houston County Sheriff Darrell Allison to help find the person who used the restroom.
The sheriff said that, at the time, he had probable cause to run Barnes' tag, because he was investigating it as a possible crime.
But Allison didn't take a police report and didn't press any charges. Nothing happened, except for the bill that soon showed up at Barnes' home.
The Channel 4 I-Team told Allison that Barnes and her husband were concerned he shared their private information and address with the restaurant's owners, but he said it happens more often than people might think.
"I would say that happens every day. It's a very common occurrence," Allison said.
State Rep. John C. Tidwell, D-New Johnsonville, said what happened to Barnes is disturbing.
"The way I interpret it, it would be illegal," Tidwell said.
He said there are laws to protect your personal information from being shared in such a manner.
"The information should not have ever been given over to the business. That is information that is supposed to be dealt with by the state's agency or the official," Tidwell said.
Tidwell said the law dictates that information from a license plate should only be used for law enforcement purposes and not be given out to the public.
The sheriff said he sees it differently.
"I would have to know you, one, and I would have to know that you're not the type of person that would just come to me or any officer wanting information about somebody or something," Allison said.
Now, Barnes and her husband wonder what could've happened if that information got into the wrong hands, because they have gone to great lengths to keep their address unlisted after taking out a restraining order against someone in their past.
"It could have potentially put me and my family in harm," Edwards said. "I don't want to see it happen to someone else that it really does cause some harm."
It's not clear whether any laws were violated.
The owner of The Flood Zone would not do an on-camera interview, but she said they are no longer charging to use their bathrooms.
She added that she would never accept Barnes' payment and just wanted to get her point across.
Allison said he only gave the restaurant owner the couple's names as well as the street on which they live.