California Police Access Background Check Database For Personal Use
On June 5, 2013, San Francisco police Sgt. John Haggett was working the 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. shift in a third-floor office at the city’s Hall of Justice.
At 11:48 that morning, someone logged into the department’s secure database inside that office and used Haggett’s sign-on and password to run a criminal background check on a San Francisco woman through the department’s local records.
Within minutes, Haggett’s account was used to run a Department of Motor Vehicles check on the same woman, as well as an FBI criminal records check and another background check run through the California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System, known as CLETS.
Eventually, investigators found Haggett’s sign-on had been used to run checks on two other city residents, and that all three of them had something in common: they were tenants renting apartments from Haggett’s girlfriend, according to San Francisco Superior Court records.
Haggett, who spent three decades on the police force, was charged with a single misdemeanor count of misusing DMV computer information and retired from the department while the case was pending. He later pleaded guilty and was ordered to pay $150 in restitution.
Haggett, who did not respond to a request for comment, was allowed to keep his pension, which last year paid him $75,613.26, according to the online database TransparentCalifornia.com.
“I felt so violated,” said one of the tenants whose name was run through law enforcement computers.
“Did he get away with it? Yes,” said the woman, who asked not to be named to preserve her privacy. “It’s such a clear-cut thing. You’re not allowed to do that.”
Haggett is one of more than 1,000 California law enforcement agency workers in the last decade who have been found to have misused the CLETS system or other sensitive databases that are supposed to be accessed only for legitimate investigative purposes.
The allegations against officers around the state run the gamut, according to an investigation from a coalition of news organizations, including McClatchy, and coordinated by the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley.
A California Highway Patrol officer was accused of accessing computer files to dig up information on a romantic rival, then allegedly driving out and keying her car.
A West Sacramento police officer pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor count of harassment after being charged with accessing department computers and making “repeated telephone calls” to harass someone at their home.
And a San Jose police officer was charged in a case where prosecutors said he accessed police computers and then wrote phony traffic and parking tickets against two people who had been involved in a lawsuit with him over a motorcycle accident five years earlier.
Law enforcement officials say there is little leeway for officers found to have misused computer systems for personal purposes, and that access is controlled using computer identities and passwords that are specific to each officer.
“It’s taken very seriously,” said former Sacramento Sheriff John McGinness, who fired one deputy for lying about a case where he asked another officer to help him find a friend while on an out-of-town trip.
McGinness also investigated then-Capt. Scott Jones in 2004 over allegations that Jones was using his computer access to run criminal background checks for bail bondsmen in Sacramento.
Jones was cleared of any wrongdoing,
Since that time, hundreds of law enforcement officials have faced accusations of misusing computers in various departments, according to statistics compiled by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based non-profit that champions digital privacy rights.
The data is collected by Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s office, and figures provided to The Sacramento Bee show that over the last 10 years 1,002 cases of computer database misuse have been confirmed.
In that same time frame, 82 law enforcement agency employees have resigned as a result of such investigations, another 86 were fired and 125 were suspended.
But the filing of criminal charges in such cases is rare.
In the last 10 years, there have been only 40 misdemeanor and 14 felony cases filed, according to data from Becerra’s office.
Last year, when 149 cases of misuse were found, only 11 cases were prosecuted statewide, all but one of them misdemeanors, according to the data. In 2017, when 147 cases of misuse were confirmed, only three cases were filed, all misdemeanors.
Such disparity between the number of abuses and the number of prosecutions is not surprising, said Eli B. Silverman, a professor emeritus at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and an expert in police reform and police leadership.
Police oversight is “what’s demanded by the public or political leaders,” Silverman said.
But, he added, “Oversight is generally a stepchild in the tool kit of law enforcement.”
Silverman said most responses from law enforcement are that “the system can be improved” or “we’re working on it.”
“The response fits a pattern,” he said. “It’s not necessarily nefarious, but it is a defense mechanism.”
Agencies are required to make annual reports to the attorney general’s office outlining the number of investigations and the outcome.
Last year, the Chula Vista Police Department reported 38 violations stemming from one internal investigation, the highest number in the state.
Chula Vista police Lt. Dan Peak said the department had been using CLETS when it issued concealed weapons permits to officers who had retired from the department. The checks were being made to ensure the officers had no criminal convictions before the permits were issued, but the department learned that was not a proper use of the CLETS system and discontinued the practice, he said.
The second-highest number came in Glendale, which reported 25 violations.
Glendale police Sgt. Daniel Suttles said the violations stemmed from an investigation into an individual found to have made 15 to 25 inappropriate computer searches.
“The department took what we believe to be the appropriate action, in this matter, in the form of a suspension,” Suttles wrote in an email.
At the CHP, 11 investigations took place last year, including three where officers ran license plates through the CLETS system “without a need to know,” the agency said.
One officer was fired, and two were suspended.
None of them faced criminal filings.
CHP’s 11 investigations ranked only behind the San Diego County Sheriff’s Office, which reported 20 investigations, 17 of which were determined to not involve computer misuse, according to data provided by EFF.
The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office reported one CLETS misuse investigation last year that resulted in a suspension, but the department refused a public records act request to release files on the incident.
Records the department agreed to release indicated that since 2014 it has confirmed 12 incidents of computer misuse that resulted in two suspensions and one firing.
The Sacramento Police Department reported two investigations last year, but determined there was no misuse of computers. Records provided by the attorney general’s office indicate that from 2014 through 2017 the department confirmed eight cases of computer misuse, which resulted in the resignation of two employees.
But the precise nature of computer misuse among law enforcement officers often remains shrouded in secrecy unless it is spelled out in court files.
The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office and West Sacramento Police Department both declined public records requests for details of misuse cases involving specific employees who had been disciplined, including one who faced criminal charges.
Each agency cited privacy concerns for their officers, and contend that a new police transparency law, SB 1421, that took effect Jan. 1 does not cover such cases. Some law enforcement veterans argue there can be gray areas about when it is permissible to use agency computers without a rock-solid investigative purpose.
McGinness, the former Sacramento sheriff, says deputies can run license plate checks freely.
“Any plate you run on the street is fair game because it may be stolen,” he said. “A license plate is on a car specifically to deprive an operator on a public highway of anonymity.”
But the attorney general’s office has issued detailed instructions to all law enforcement agencies in the state outlining prohibitions on misuse of the CLETS system and saying computers must be used for official business, with employees required to establish both a “right to know” and a “need to know” the information being sought.
In a bulletin issued in April 2018, Becerra’s office spelled out some prohibited computer searches, including accessing databases for information on family or friends, providing data to someone else for unauthorized use or looking for records on “high profile individuals in the media.”
Even when criminal charges are filed, the most serious punishment generally is a plea to a misdemeanor and a fine, court filings show, and the prosecutions do not always lead to an officer losing their job.
CHP Officer Joelle McChesney was charged in Yolo County in May 2008 with five counts of accessing computers without permission and pleaded no contest eight months later to three misdemeanor counts.
She also was charged in Placer County with identity theft and defacing a vehicle belonging to a woman she was accused of obtaining information about improperly.
McChesney did not respond to a request for comment, but a CHP spokeswoman confirmed
McChesney is still on the job serving in the Sonora area office.
The agency declined to discuss her case, citing confidentiality of personnel records.
But McChesney testified in a traffic case last year in Tuolumne County Superior Court that the incident stemmed from jealousy about a CHP officer she was dating who was seeing another woman, according to news accounts from the trial.
McChesney testified she ran computer checks twice, but denied that she had keyed the woman’s car, according to a July 2018 report in The Union Democrat.
“I made a mistake, and this is part of the consequences,” the newspaper quoted her as saying in explaining her no contest pleas. “I just wanted it done.
“It still haunts me, but it was what I thought was best.”
Other officers also have been able to remain in law enforcement despite such prosecutions.
San Francisco Police Officer Warrick Whitfield was charged with seven misdemeanors in 2014 accusing him of “misuse of confidential information.”
Court records say Whitfield was running computer searches as a favor to his girlfriend, whose daughter was involved in a custody dispute.
Whitfield, who could not be reached for comment, pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor count and was ordered to pay $7,398.56 in restitution, court documents say.
Despite that, he remains on the force and was named the Richmond Station’s “officer of the week” in 2017.
Sgt. Michael Andraychak, a San Francisco police spokesman, said the department could not comment on the cases involving Haggett or Whitfield.
“We would not have access to specific officers’ files nor would we be able to comment on any investigations, their outcomes or, if a complaint was sustained, what discipline was ordered,” he wrote in an email. “As such, we would not be in a position to compare or contrast any cases.”
But the system is not always as forgiving as it appeared to be for Whitfield, especially once the allegations spill out into public.
Former Alameda County Deputy Sheriff Ryan Silcocks has firsthand knowledge of how devastating a mistake misuse of computers can be.
Silcocks, now 47, spent five years with the sheriff’s office as a civilian and another 13 as a sworn officer working out of a family law courthouse until he was fired in August 2013.
Investigators accused Silcocks in court records of accessing law enforcement computers three times over a five-week period in 2012 to look for DMV and criminal background information and providing some of it to a family law attorney he knew.
At the time, Silcocks said in an interview, the family law attorney was seeking help for a client in an ugly child custody case and he believed the woman in the case might be the victim of a sexual assault going on in a Livermore home.
The attorney’s call for help came in at 10:30 p.m. on a Sunday night, and Silcocks acknowledges he drove to the Alameda County family law courthouse, used his keys to get inside and went to his office to access sheriff’s office computers.
“I was extremely concerned about the individual’s safety,” he said. “My mindset at the time was, I understand it’s 10:30 at night, I understand I’m off duty, but I’m still a deputy sheriff, I’m still a police officer and this person’s in danger.”
Silcocks says he was looking for an address to give to Livermore police so they could go to the home and halt the alleged assault.
“I really thought I was doing the right thing, trying to get a bad guy off the streets,” Silcocks said. “I was doing what I thought a police officer should do.”
Internal affairs investigators had a different view of the situation, and Silcocks ended up pleading no contest to a single misdemeanor count in exchange for time served of one day and a $395 fine.
Silcocks also faced a $3 million federal civil rights lawsuit filed by the man whose information he first looked up. He and the county prevailed in their fight against the suit, but the cost to Silcocks from accessing the computers has been incalculable.
He now works 80 hours a week in two different jobs to make ends meet, and says it took five years before he could allow his girlfriend to remove his sheriff’s uniforms from his closet and store them out of sight.
“The newspaper carried my case relentlessly,” he said, noting that he has never spoken publicly about the case until now. “It gave my agency a black eye.
“I was on administrative leave for 439 days. I counted every single one.”
Silcocks, who spoke while wearing a thin blue line T-shirt he bought after the June 19 slaying of Sacramento police Officer Tara O’Sullivan, said he loves law enforcement and that his father, a 24-year veteran of the Alameda sheriff’s office, stopped speaking to him after his case went public and he was fired.
“I spent two months unemployed and I remember trying to apply even as a clerk at a Chevron gas station,” he said. “I got turned down.
“I think being fired as a police officer is probably the biggest blemish that one can have on any kind of job application or resume. I think you can have a severe criminal history, but just don’t be fired as a cop.”