Lee Paige, the federal drug agent who accidentally shot himself in the leg during a videotaped talk with children, lost his appeal today in a suit that alleged the government illegally released personal information.
Paige sued in Washington federal district court in 2006, saying that the Drug Enforcement Administration violated federal privacy rights. A trial judge, Jack Shanstrom, ruled against him in December 2010.
Paige shot himself in the thigh in April 2004 as he spoke to about 50 children and parents at a community center in Orlando. One of the parents in the crowd was recording the talk and captured the shooting. The video found a home on the Internet, including on YouTube. At the time, Paige was an undercover agent.
An internal DEA investigation did not uncover the identity of the person who released the video clip to the public.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit said today the video clip of the shooting, cut from the original, longer video, was not a part of the agency’s “system of records.” The court said “at no point” was the video “retrievable or retrieved by Paige’s name or other identifying particular.”
Still, the court expressed concern about the release of the video. Even if there was no violation of the Privacy Act.
“The widespread circulation of the accidental discharge video demonstrates the need for every federal agency to safeguard video records with extreme diligence in this internet age of iPhones and YouTube with their instantaneous and universal reach,” Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson wrote for the three-judge panel.
Henderson said the DEA’s handling of the video—in particular, creating different versions of it—“undoubtedly increased the likelihood of disclosure and, although not an abuse of a system of records, is far from a model of agency treatment of private data.”
The appeals court noted that the video contained no private facts and that the community center was open to the public at the time Paige delivered his presentation to the children. Paige’s accidental discharge of his firearm, the court said, was a matter of public concern.
A lawyer for Paige, Ward Meythaler of Tampa’s Merkle Magri & Meythaler, was not immediately reached for comment this morning. Meythaler argued for Paige in the D.C. Circuit in October.
Meythaler in court papers criticized the DEA's record-keeping, saying the agency committed "free-for-all and massive violations" of internal rules addressing the retention of records.
The video, Meythaler said, “was a private fact, particularly since the video revealed his identity and subjected him to the very real threat of being killed because of his undercover activities.”
Meythaler said the video made Paige “a laughing stock around the world despite his notable and often extremely dangerous service to the United States.”