MARTINEZ, Calif. — The disgraced former California Highway Patrol officer at the center of a nude photo-sharing scandal that rocked the agency will avoid any jail time after pleading no contest Tuesday to two felony counts of secretly copying and sharing explicit photos of female DUI suspects.
Contra Costa Superior Court Judge Terri Mockler said she struggled with Sean Harrington’s punishment but in the end gave the former officer a 180-day suspended jail sentence for two felony computer theft charges for stealing photos from the women’s cellphones. As long as he follows the terms of his probation and attends violence-prevention classes, Harrington will not spend time behind bars. However, his law enforcement career is almost certainly over.
Harrington, wearing a gray suit with a blue shirt and flanked by his wife and attorney, spoke for the first time publicly about his case outside the Martinez courthouse.
“I apologize to my family, my wife, my friends. I apologize to officers everywhere, especially to the two women involved,” Harrington said, reading from a statement. “I’m trying to put this behind me and move forward from this. I hope now everyone else can, too.”
The 35-year-old father of two from Martinez faced up to three years and eight months in prison. In two incidents last year, Harrington, who worked in the Dublin CHP office, forwarded racy photos of young women arrested on suspicion of drunken driving in San Ramon and Livermore to his personal cellphone and sent them to colleagues, along with raunchy text messages. In one instance, Harrington captured photos from a 19-year-old woman who was suspected of a DUI crash in Livermore.
“Taken from the phone of my 10-15x while she’s in X-rays. Enjoy buddy!!!” Harrington texted a CHP colleague, sending an explicit image from the woman’s phone while she was being treated at a hospital.
In his interview with Contra Costa District Attorney investigators, Harrington said he learned of the “game” while in a Los Angeles CHP office, as well as his Dublin post. The state agency has downplayed those statements, saying this was an isolated incident. None of the other officers named in search warrant affidavits has been charged with a crime.
Harrington resigned from the CHP in October after being charged by prosecutors.
Harrington’s attorney, Michael Rains, said Tuesday that his client has never been questioned by CHP investigators; they simply forwarded the four-hour-plus video of the Contra Costa District Attorney interview to the state agency.
“I realized the severity of the charges throughout this entire process, and from the very beginning I accepted responsibility for my part and my actions,” Harrington said. “I fully cooperated with investigators and did everything asked of me to make things right. This has cost me my career in the CHP — a career that I loved and was good at and a career that made my family and friends proud of me.
“My actions have caused that sense of pride to be eroded and have replaced it with embarrassment. I can only hope that with time I can work to prove myself and rebuild that sense of pride again.”
Mockler said she thought “long and hard” about a proper sentence.
Harrington’s lack of criminal record and the fact he will likely no longer work in law enforcement played into her decision, the judge said.
“In addition, I contemplated a disposition that would require Mr. Harrington to contemplate and hopefully learn and educate others on … how this type of conduct affects the people who were affected,” she said.
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Mockler read a quote from Elizabeth Cady Stanton, an early women’s rights activist: “Women’s degradation is in man’s idea of his sexual rights. Our religion, laws, customs, are all founded on the belief that woman was made for man.”
“To me, that sums up what happened here,” the judge said.
Prosecutor Barry Grove said that despite not serving a day in jail, Harrington likely received a steeper punishment than a non-law enforcement defendant charged with similar crimes.
“What he did was in violation of the public trust,” Grove said. “He will have to learn about the degradation of people’s lives.”
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Attorney Rick Madsen, who represents one victim identified only as Jane Doe 1, attended the plea hearing and had mixed emotions on Harrington avoiding jail time.
“I can go both ways on that philosophy,” Madsen said outside court.
“There’s no sentence that can ultimately undue the damage done to Jane Doe 1 and Jane Doe 2,” he said. “Both victims will live with the uncertainty of public disclosure and ridicule and embarrassment.”
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Other cases around the country where officers were caught stealing and forwarding cellphone photos resulted in discipline but no criminal charges or jail time.
Jane Doe 1, who launched the case against Harrington when she told prosecutors last year what had happened, is contemplating a lawsuit against Harrington and the CHP, Madsen said.
Harrington must return to court in March to prove he attended the violence-prevention courses. The judge also granted stay-away orders keeping Harrington from the two victims, as well as ordering him to maintain their anonymity.
©2015 Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.)
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