CHP nude photo scandal: Defense attorneys, prosecutors reviewing all cases involving trio of officers
MARTINEZ — Contra Costa and Alameda county prosecutors, public defenders and private attorneys are reviewing active and old cases linked to three California Highway Patrol officers embroiled in a growing nude photo-sharing probe to determine whether the cases should be dismissed or revisited, this newspaper learned Wednesday.
Already a second DUI case was dismissed this week as a result of the investigation, and Alameda County prosecutors announced Wednesday they have launched their own investigation involving the officers from the Dublin CHP office.
“It's clear by the evidence, these officers have a complete lack of integrity in carrying out their job duties,” said Contra Costa public defender Robin Lipetzky. She sent an email Tuesday afternoon to the Contra Costa District Attorney's Office asking for any pending criminal cases involving Officers Sean Harrington, Robert Hazelwood and Dion Simmons, who have been named in an investigation into a purported “game” where officers secretly steal explicit photos from unsuspecting female arrestees' phones and share them among colleagues, according to court documents.
“While we're on the topic of cops behaving badly, will you please provide us with a list of active cases involving the CHP officers who have been caught sending each other photos from detainees' cellphones?” Lipetzky wrote in an email Tuesday to assistant district attorney Doug MacMaster. She said she has not heard back, and Contra Costa prosecutors said they have not determined the number of active cases.
The CHP trio have not been charged over the allegations, but a decision is expected this week.
“This could be the tip of the iceberg in terms of what other malfeasance was going on,” Lipetzky said. “If this is going on so blatantly and with such arrogance, it does call into question if there's other bad behavior going on.”
Alameda County public defender Brendon Woods said his office is reviewing all current and closed cases involving the three officers and have engaged in preliminary conversations with the Alameda County DA's office.
“This conduct is shocking, it's appalling, it's disgusting,” Woods said. “It's disgusting that law enforcement officers would abuse their power this way with no regard to the laws they've sworn to uphold.”
All three officers named in Contra Costa DA inspector search warrants were based out of the Dublin CHP office, which patrols both Contra Costa and Alameda counties. A 23-year-old San Ramon woman broke the case open after her August DUI arrest in which she discovered intimate photos of herself were secretly forwarded to her arresting officer's personal cellphone. She alerted DA inspectors, who got Harrington, 35, of Martinez, to confess to stealing photos from female suspects a “half-dozen” times over the last “several years,” according to court documents. Harrington also told investigators he learned of the practice while being stationed at a Los Angeles CHP office and saw it being practiced in his Dublin station.
Investigators found a number of leering texts between the officers about the female suspects, accompanied by photos.
Alameda County District Attorney spokeswoman Teresea Drenick confirmed her office has started its own probe. “We are going to have a thorough review of all the cases involving the officers, and there is an active investigation into the matter,” she said.
On Monday, Alameda County prosecutors dismissed a misdemeanor DUI case on the second day of jury selection because Hazelwood was the arresting officer, according to Drenick and Oakland defense attorney Francisco Rodriguez.
“They didn't want to give us the reasons for the dismissal but, for me, the only reason the case was dismissed midtrial was because Hazelwood was the key witness,” said Rodriguez, who represented the defendant.
Prosecutors have a legal and ethical obligation to share exculpatory and impeachment evidence against a witness, he said. “The problem here is that I'm learning about this from news reports rather than through the system,” Rodriguez said.
The Contra Costa public defender said the CHP's declaration that the alleged cellphone incidents were isolated to the Dublin CHP office is premature.
“I can't imagine how they would know that at this point,” Lipetzky said. “If all they are doing is asking officers if they've ever seen this happen before and then they say, ‘No,' I don't think that's a thorough enough investigation.”
The CHP has said Contra Costa prosecutors reassured them that the incidents are contained to officers working in the Dublin office, however Contra Costa deputy district attorney Barry Grove said his office's ongoing investigation is limited to crimes that occurred inside its jurisdiction.
“The CHP knows better than I if this is a systemic problem within the CHP statewide,” Grove said.
In a Tuesday interview, CHP Golden Gate Division Chief Avery Browne said he could not speak to specifics of either the Contra Costa DA or CHP internal probe, but said his agency's investigation expands outside Dublin and has not found anything beyond that East Bay office.
“We're not myopic in our process,” he said, saying the CHP has done additional follow-up and investigations.
Meanwhile, while stumping for state propositions and local candidates, Gov. Jerry Brown briefly commented on the CHP scandal, saying, “It's hard to believe anyone could do that,” and calling it “an aberration.”