Malaika Fraley and Matthias Gafni
The Oakland Tribune
MARTINEZ, CALIF.: A California Highway Patrol officer has resigned from the agency and was charged Friday with two felonies for allegedly secretly forwarding himself explicit photos from female arrestees’ phones and then sharing the images with colleagues.
Officer Sean Harrington, 35, of Martinez, faces up to three years and eight months in prison under the two counts of computer theft filed against him Friday afternoon in Contra Costa County Superior Court. Harrington submitted his resignation to the CHP on Wednesday, according to a statement released by his attorney Friday afternoon.
Contra Costa Deputy District Attorney Barry Grove said his office is declining to file charges at this time against CHP Officers Robert Hazelwood and Dion Simmons who, according to court documents, each received stolen photos from Harrington.
Grove called the conversation between the officers about the women and their stolen photos in text messages "unethical, unappealing and maybe immoral," but not in violation of the penal code.
In a statement from his attorney, Michael Rains, Harrington offered "his deepest apologies to the women whose cellular telephones were accessed or reviewed," and apologized to law enforcement colleagues, saying he was " embarrassed to have tarnished the reputation of the California Highway Patrol and law enforcement generally."
An attorney for two of the women arrested welcomed the charges.
"We are pleased to hear of the felony charging decision today by the Contra Costa County District Attorney’s Office with respect to CHP Officer Harrington, and agree that those charges are merited by the shocking evidence and admissions in the search warrants," said Attorney Richard Madsen Jr. "We respectfully disagree with the interpretation of the evidence pertaining to Officers Hazelwood and Simmons. Given that Harrington is charged with the theft of private images, it would seem intellectually inconsistent that the knowing and voluntary receipt of those same images would not also constitute criminal activity."
The Contra Costa County District Attorney’s Office first began investigating the officers in early October after a 23-year-old San Ramon woman came forward to report that Harrington secretly stole her nude and partially clad photos while she was in custody for a DUI arrest in August. The investigation has since widened, with the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office launching its own probe this week.
Harrington is being charged for allegedly stealing the San Ramon woman’s photos, and a photo from a 19-year-old woman who was arrested in August for a suspected DUI crash in Livermore. He is also under investigation related to a third woman’s complaint this week that her phone may have been tampered by Harrington when he arrested her.
According to court documents, Harrington told investigators that nude photo stealing and swapping is a "game" he learned while stationed at the CHP’s Los Angeles office, and it’s a practice that continues at the CHP office in Dublin where he, Hazelwood and Simmons worked. Harrington allegedly admitted to doing this for "several years" on a half-dozen occasions.
A second, unnamed officer has been pulled from patrol duties, the CHP said. He expected to turn himself in Monday.
Chief Avery Browne of the CHP’s Golden Gate Division said that he believes any "game" of secretly trading explicit cellphone photos of female suspects is isolated to the Dublin office.
"As an organization we expect the highest level of integrity and moral strength from everyone in the California Highway Patrol, and there is no place in our organization for individuals who chose to manipulate the law and departmental policy for their personal gain," Browne said in a statement. He said the department would continue its internal investigation and would discipline any officer involved, including firing them.
In a Friday release, Contra Costa District Attorney Mark Peterson said his office interviewed several other officers at the CHP Dublin office, including forensic examinations of their phones.
"Based on our review of the evidence gathered to date, the Contra Costa County District Attorney’s Office will not be filing criminal charges against any other CHP officer," he said. "Should additional evidence later be obtained that an officer violated the law, he/she will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law."
Contra Costa prosecutors have also said they are only investigating crimes that may have happened within their jurisdiction.
The attorney representing the 23-year-old San Ramon woman and the third woman, along with the public defenders in both counties, have said they aren’t reassured by the CHP’s stance that the practice isn’t widespread.
The CHP has also acknowledged two officers were found to have done similar acts in Southern California in 2012, with one losing his job and the other resigning before the probe ended.
Peterson said it was the first time in Contra Costa County history a law enforcement officer was charged with this type of crime. He said he expected Harrington to appear in court for a formal arraignment soon.