by Andrew Emett
October 29, 2014
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As law enforcement authorities have repeatedly been caught abusing their powers for their own amusement, when will they be held to a higher standard?
A California Highway Patrol (CHP) officer has admitted to stealing nude photos from the cell phones of several women that he arrested and shared the pictures with at least two other officers. Accessing their cell phones while the women were in police custody, CHP Officer Sean Harrington forwarded the explicit photos to his phone before texting them to his colleagues. Instead of serving and protecting, law enforcement authorities have repeatedly been caught abusing their powers for their own amusement.
Just past midnight on August 29, Officer Harrington and his partner pulled over a 23-year-old San Ramon woman for making an unsafe lane change. After failing a field sobriety test, she was detained on suspicion of driving under the influence with a blood alcohol content of .29, over three times the legal limit. Harrington brought the woman to the county jail in Martinez where she asked the officer to retrieve a phone number from her contact list. After she gave Harrington her cell password, he wrote the phone number down on a piece of paper and handed it to her. Surveillance video corroborates these events.
While off-camera, Harrington illegally delved into her photos without a search warrant. He forwarded six intimate photos of the suspect to his cell phone before deleting the record of actions from her iPhone. Unbeknownst to Harrington, her iPad was synced to her phone via iCloud and kept a separate record of his transgressions. After the suspect was released, she learned her photos had been forwarded to an unknown phone number with a 707 area code while she was in custody. She researched the number and discovered it belonged to her arresting officer.
As Harrington was sharing the photos and making derogatory comments about her with CHP officers Robert Hazelwood and Dion Simmons, the female suspect hired Danville attorney Rick Madsen. On October 7, she gave a statement to investigators and shared her electronic devices with them. Nine days later, investigators served a search warrant at Harrington’s house seizing his iPhone 5S and Apple laptop. Both devises contained photos, text messages, and instant messages stolen from the woman’s phone. As the DA served a search warrant on Officer Hazelwood’s cell phone, CHP Chief Avery Browne of the Golden Gate Division launched an internal investigation.
“Allegations that have been brought forward are disappointing,” acknowledged Chief Browne. “They are disgusting.”
Browne went on to publicly thank the woman for having the courage to come forward with the allegations. During a press conference, Browne stated that Harrington has been barred from returning to work and Hazelwood has been pulled from patrol duties. Officer Simmons is now considered a witness and has not been placed on administrative leave.
According to Harrington’s text messages to Hazelwood and Simmons on August 7, Harrington stole two photos of a DUI suspect in a bikini from the 19-year-old’s phone while she received X-rays following a car accident. Harrington eventually confessed to stealing explicit photos from the cell phones of at least six female suspects. He told DA investigators that he had begun stealing and sharing these photos while working at a Los Angeles CHP office.
In 2012, the CHP launched an internal investigation into their Los Angeles offices. The department found at least two unidentified officers illegally accessing information on computers and individuals’ phones. One officer was fired and another resigned before the investigation concluded. No victims came forward in the case probably due to the fact that they did not know their photos had been stolen.
“You have to ask yourself what’s going on in police departments. Officers are not being appropriately trained,” said Oakland attorney and mayoral candidate Dan Siegel. “They’re acting like a bunch of junior high students.”
In May, Pamela Held filed a lawsuit against the City of New York and NYPD Officer Sean Christian for allegedly forwarding 25 explicit photos from her iPhone to his personal cell phone while she was in custody. After Held reported the incident, police had her call Christian while recording the conversation. He attempted to flirt with Held and called her back to reassure her concerning the forwarded photos that he stole from her iPhone. Christian remains on duty and will face an internal NYPD trial on misconduct charges.
In 2011, Morgan Hill Police Officer David Ray arrested Casey Serrano without probable cause. After Ray confiscated her phone, he deleted photos of his patrol car violating police protocol. Corporal Mindy Zen also accessed the phone and uploaded a picture of Serrano’s exposed breast onto the incarcerated suspect’s Facebook profile. Serrano sued the city and received a $75,000 settlement. Zen was demoted, and Ray was fired.
In 2005, Houston patrolman Christopher Green arrested a woman suspected of DUI and found nude photos on her phone. After downloading the pictures, Green shared them with his colleagues and attorneys at a courthouse. Green and his partner, Officer George Miller, were fired after Miller called the woman’s house asking her out on a date. Neither officer faced criminal charges because Texas did not have any laws regarding cell phone photos.
In 2006, CHP officers stationed in Orange County took macabre photos of a deceased 18-year-old woman who died in a car accident. After the photos wound up online, her family received a $2.4 million settlement from the CHP.
In June, the Supreme Court ruled against police departments searching a suspect’s cell phone without a warrant. According to former San Francisco police chief and director of USF’s International Institute of Criminal Justice Leadership, Anthony Ribera, an incarcerated suspect asking an officer to retrieve a phone number from a cell phone does not permit that officer to search other apps on that phone. The DUI charges against the 23-year-old San Ramon woman have been dropped, and Contra Costa County prosecutors expect to announce whether they will file criminal charges against officers Harrington and Hazelwood in the next few days.
“The allegations anger and disgust me,” admitted CHP Commissioner Joe Farrow. “We expect the highest level of integrity and moral strength from everyone in the California Highway Patrol.”