A California Highway Patrol officer has been accused of stealing nude photographs of a woman he pulled over on suspicion of driving under the influence, and investigators recommend filing criminal charges against him.
Court documents obtained by the Contra Costa Times show that investigators have learned Sean Harrington, a 35-year-old CHP officer and five-year veteran of the force, illegally forwarded various nude photographs to himself after gaining access to the young woman’s phone. The investigator for the Contra Costa District Attorney is recommending that they bring felony computer theft charges against Harrington.
The incident began earlier this year on August 29, when Harrington pulled over a 23-year-old woman – who remains unidentified – for performing an illegal lane change. She ended up failing a sobriety test and registered a .29 percent blood-alcohol level, far higher than the legal limit of .08 percent.
The woman was taken to a county jail, but at some point told investigators that Harrington asked for the password to her phone, which she relayed. She reportedly asked the officer to get her a phone number from the device’s contact list, which he delivered by writing it down on a piece of paper. Using surveillance video at the jail, detectives were able to determine this exchange did happen and that Harrington was in possession of the phone when the nude photos were forwarded around 2:08 am.
“While a record of the forwarded photos was deleted from the woman’s Apple iPhone,” the Times wrote,“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.”
Harrington is currently on desk duty while the investigation unfolds. Meanwhile, the accusations against the officer have resulted in dropped charges against the woman for the DUI.
“We think it’s a horrendous breach of the public trust,” Rick Madsen, the woman’s attorney, said to the Times. “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.”
Madsen added that more than one search warrant has been served in the case, meaning there could have been multiple officers involved.
Harrington’s alleged actions are also being scrutinized harshly since the Supreme Court ruled in June that police are not allowed to search individual cell phones without first obtaining a warrant. Even if Harrington had asked for the password simply to retrieve the phone number the woman wanted, he would not be allowed to look through other programs or folders on the device.
“Modern cell phones are not just another technological convenience,” the Supreme Court ruled in June.“The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the 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.”