DUI suspect accuses cop of nabbing nude photos from her iPhone

A California woman claims a Highway Patrolman saw personal images on her iPhone and sent them to his own personal cell phone. Court records reportedly say the officer called the practice "a game."

Chris Matyszczyk
3 min read

Officer Sean Harrington is accused of sending a woman's private pictures to his own cell phone. ABC 7 Screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

Giving someone else access to your gadgets is always risky.

When that someone else is a police officer, there's an additional dimension of risk. It's not that most police officers can't be trusted, though some have been known to overreach. It's just that offering additional, potentially self-incriminating information might be unwise.

A 23-year-old California woman claims she was arrested for suspected drunk driving and taken to jail in the San Francisco Bay Area city of Martinez. She allowed a California Highway Patrolman to access her iPhone, so he could retrieve the phone number of someone she needed to call. She allegedly gave him her passcode.

After she had been booked, she says, she noticed that certain of her private pictures -- some featuring her in a state of undress -- had been sent to a number she didn't recognize. This number allegedly turned out to be that of the officer's private cell phone.

Her lawyer, Rick Madsen, told ABC 7 News that his client believes up to six photos were sent from her cell phone to that of Officer Sean Harrington.

He also told the Contra Costa 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."

The alleged incident happened in August. Contra Costa County Deputy District Attorney Barry Grove told the Contra Costa Times: "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." The DUI charge against the woman has been dropped because of the investigation. The Contra Costa Times tried to get hold of Harrington, but without success.

The woman didn't discover the alleged theft by looking at her iPhone. The records of messages sent had allegedly been deleted. However, she had her phone synced to her iPad through Apple's iCloud. It was there that she found the traces of the alleged forwarding of her private pictures.

As the investigation has progressed, more disturbing information has emerged. The San Jose Mercury News says it has obtained documents in which Harrington allegedly describes the stealing of photos from those arrested as a "game." He allegedly told investigators that he'd done it "half a dozen times in the last several years."

Moreover, the documents reportedly implicate at least one other CHP officer, Robert Hazlewood. He is alleged to have texted Harrington after one arrest: "No f***ing nudes?"

The Mercury News said it contacted Hazlewood but that he declined to comment. CHP Commissioner John Farrow told the paper: "The allegations anger and disgust me. We expect the highest levels of integrity and moral strength from everyone in the California Highway Patrol, and there is no place in our organization for such behavior."

The Contra Costa District Attorney's office and the CHP did not immediately reply to my request for comment.

Reports suggest that the DA may recommend a charge of felony computer theft. Harrington has reportedly been put on desk duty while the investigation takes place.

In the June case of Riley vs. California (PDF), the Supreme Court ruled that it's illegal for police officers to search a suspect's cell phone without a warrant.

The rapid proliferation of technology has highlighted the conflicts that can exist between the police and the public. Some police departments are testing body cams, in an attempt to preserve records of officer behavior.

And more citizens are filming the police in action, because they fear what might occur. Recently, one cell phone recording of an officer trying to trick a driver into admitting he smoked pot was held up as a classic example of police overreach.

But whether police are involved or not, trusting anyone with your personal data means letting them into your private life. And that's always a risk.

In one incident at Best Buy, for example, a woman said an employee whom she trusted to transfer her photos to a new iPhone instead downloaded them onto a CD and invited her to his house to get it.

If the allegations against Harrington turn out to be true, the case provides, perhaps, another window into the sort of mindset that caused the sharing through Reddit and 4Chan of images of Jennifer Lawrence and many other female celebrities just a few weeks ago.