Dublin CHP officer suspected of secretly forwarding DUI suspect’s nude photos
MARTINEZ — A Dublin-based California Highway Patrol officer is suspected of secretly sending nude photos of a DUI suspect from her cellphone to his own phone, according to court documents obtained Wednesday.
A Contra Costa District Attorney investigator has recommended felony computer theft charges against CHP officer Sean Harrington, 35, of Martinez, according to search warrant records obtained by this newspaper. The five-year CHP veteran has been assigned to desk duties during the probe, a CHP spokeswoman said.
“We’ve been investigating this for quite some time, the investigation is coming to a conclusion and we expect to make a charging decision this week,” deputy district attorney Barry Grove said Wednesday. He declined to comment on whether other officers have been implicated in the investigation, although an attorney representing the woman believes other officers and victims will surface.
The CHP is assisting in the investigation, said CHP Sgt. Diana McDermott, who declined to discuss specifics. The CHP’s Dublin-based office patrols portions of both Contra Costa and Alameda counties.
A call to Harrington’s seized cellphone went directly to voice mail and a woman who answered a phone at a relative’s home in Vacaville said he was on vacation.
Inspector Darryl Holcombe said Harrington discovered and forwarded to himself six explicit photos while booking the 23-year-old San Ramon woman into the Martinez County Jail in August. The photos depict the woman, who is not being identified, in a bikini and in various states of undress.
“We think it’s a horrendous breach of the public trust,” said Rick Madsen, a private Danville attorney representing the woman. “We believe Officer Harrington committed a clandestine and illegal intrusion into her privacy which is unspeakable considering his sworn duty to protect the public. My client remains understandably distraught as we await further information about who else may possess the photos and what further investigation may uncover.”
While a record of the forwarded photos was deleted from the woman’s Apple iPhone, her iPad, which was synced to her phone via the iCloud service, revealed that the explicit photos in her “photos” app were forwarded to an unknown phone number in the 707 area code while she was in police custody. The woman researched the number and learned it belonged to her arresting officer, according to the court records.On Oct. 7, the woman and Madsen gave a statement to investigators and shared her electronic devices. On Oct. 16, investigators served a search warrant at Harrington’s house in Martinez and seized his iPhone 5S and Apple laptop containing photographs, text messages and instant messages from the woman’s phone, according to the search warrant.
“We’re confident that the Contra Costa District Attorney’s Office is committed to determining the scope of this matter, but it’s clear it’s not isolated to one victim or one particular officer because we believe multiple search warrants have been served,” Madsen said. “As humiliating as this has been to my client, she came forward to prevent the same indignity from ever occurring again.”The events unfolded in two short hours, the early morning of Aug. 29.
Just after midnight, Harrington and his partner stopped the woman’s white-colored sedan on Interstate 680 near Crow Canyon Road in San Ramon for making an unsafe lane change. She failed field sobriety tests and was detained on suspicion of driving under the influence with a blood alcohol level of .29 percent, more than three times the legal limit.
At some point during the woman’s traffic stop, Harrington asked for her cell password, which she gave him, the woman told investigators. She was taken to the county jail in Martinez, where the woman asked Harrington to get a phone number from her contact list. He wrote it down on a piece of paper and handed it to her, an action verified by surveillance video, the inspector wrote.
Investigators determined the photos to be forwarded at 2:08 a.m. the morning of her arrest, and Holcombe wrote that based on video evidence from the booking scene, Harrington was in possession of the woman’s phone and Jane Doe was in custody at that time.
The night ended with the woman receiving a notice to appear in court and her release. Her DUI case has since been dismissed due to the investigation into Harrington’s actions, according to court records.
If Harrington is charged with a crime, any arrest for which he would be called as a witness could be subject to review, Grove said.
The allegations shocked law enforcement and privacy experts, particularly following a June Supreme Court ruling forbidding police from searching a suspect’s cellphone without a warrant. Asking to retrieve a phone number from a cell would not permit an officer to search other areas of the phone, said Anthony Ribera, former San Francisco police chief and director of USF’s International Institute of Criminal Justice Leadership.
“A crime is a crime, and unfortunately sometimes officers commit crimes,” Ribera said, adding a felon can no longer work as a police officer.
Contact Malaika Fraley at 925-234-1684 or Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026. Follow them on Twitter at @malaikafraley and @mgafni.