The state has asked a federal judge to dismiss most claims in a whistleblower lawsuit that alleges Maine State Police repeatedly broke privacy laws and conducted illegal surveillance on private citizens.

The lawsuit itself focuses on an employment dispute. The plaintiff is a state trooper, George Loder, who said his superiors demoted him when he called out the practices at the Maine Information and Analysis Center.

But the complaint filed in May includes a myriad of allegations that placed new scrutiny on the secretive police unit. Lawmakers have called for more oversight or even suggested that the so-called fusion center should be shut down.

Loder said the Maine Information and Analysis Center spied on people who participated in lawful protests, kept personal information from background checks on prospective gun owners and illegally used data collected from license plate readers in other states to target suspected drug traffickers with Maine-registered vehicles. Top law enforcement officials have rebuffed those allegations and attempted to justify the center’s work.

In September, the state filed a motion to dismiss four of the six claims in the lawsuit, arguing that Loder does not have a path to relief under the federal Privacy Act or other legal protections he cited. Loder’s attorney disagreed.

U.S. District Judge Jon Levy heard oral arguments on the motion Tuesday, the first hearing in the case so far. The judge’s findings on those four claims will not impact the remaining two, which focus on whistleblower protection and retaliation under the First Amendment.

The hearing itself did not delve into the abuses alleged in the complaint. Instead, the attorneys debated in part whether Loder could even use the Privacy Act to sue the Maine Intelligence and Analysis Center or the individual Maine State Police employees named in the complaint.

Levy asked the state’s attorney about the relationships between state agencies and federal ones, and how the courts see the two levels of government differently under the law.

“The Privacy Act applies only to federal agencies, not to state agencies or to individual state employees,” Assistant Attorney General Valerie Wright argued.

The judge also questioned the plaintiff’s lawyer about qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that often shields government employees from lawsuits.

“This would be the case that says, look, if you’re going to take this money and you’re going to do this job to collect this data, you have to abide by the Privacy Act,” attorney Cynthia Dill said. “How much more notice do these people need that they are in fact obligated to comply with the Privacy Act?”

Levy will issue a written decision on which claims, if any, get to move forward. He did not say during the hearing when he would do so.

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