I remember as a kid being told to find a police officer if I was ever in trouble, the idea being that we, as citizens, should be able to trust that law enforcement will protect and serve our best interests. As a child, I had no reason to question my parent’s advice. However, as an adult, I find it increasingly difficult to follow my parents’ words of wisdom.
So what is the latest transgression in, what seems like, an ever-increasing upsurge of law enforcement transgressions?
According to court documents obtained by the Contra Costa Times, a California Highway Patrol officer is alleged to have gone into the phone of a DUI suspect whom he pulled over and sent nude images to himself of the DUI suspect.
Sean Harrinton, a five-year veteran of the California Highway Patrol, and his partner pulled over a woman on August 29th of this year for making an unsafe lane change in Northern California. The woman allegedly failed field sobriety tests and was determined to have a blood alcohol content of 0.29 percent. She was subsequently arrested and taken to the local county jail for booking.
While at the county jail, Harrington secretly went into the woman’s phone and sent himself images of the woman, both nude and in a bikini.
Although the District Attorney’s office and the CHP declined to comment on the case, the Contra Costa Times has reported that a Contra Costa District Attorney investigator has recommended felony computer theft charges against Harrington.
Harrington has been assigned to desk duties pending the investigation.
"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."
Although Harrington’s search of the phone may not have been for the purpose of obtaining evidence against the woman, the breach of privacy is nonetheless disturbingly illegal.
The United States Supreme Court recently unanimously held in Riley v. California, 573 U.S. ___ (2014), that warrantless searches and seizures of digital contents of a cellphones during an arrest are unconstitutional.
“Modern cellphones are not just another technological convenience. With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans ‘the privacies of life,’ wrote the Court. “The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of protection for which the Founders fought. Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple – get a warrant.”
The woman apparently had given Harrington the password to her phone for the purpose of obtaining a number from the phone. The scope of her consent was to the phone number and only the phone number, nothing more.
According to court records, the woman’s DUI case has since been dismissed as a result of the investigation into Harrington’s actions. And rightly so. If Harrington was willing to violate the woman’s privacy rights, what else was he willing to do to taint the DUI investigation?