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Chairman’s Message

Posted on Sunday, November 01, 2009 at 12:00PM
Posted by Andy Schlenker

Over the last several months, I have written about how technology has impacted public safety officers, both from a positive and negative standpoint. From a variety of perspectives, the efficiency and effectiveness of developing technology has made law enforcement easier and safer, but has also snared the unwary officer into the dreaded disciplinary environment.

Past discussions include the use/misuse of social networking sites, and video recording. This month, I have one more to add to the list.

We should all be aware that the misuse of computer databases, such as the California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System (CLETS) has recently been targeted by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies. CLETS is connected to both the California Department of Justice Center files in Sacramento and Federal Bureau of Investigation National Crime Information Computer files in Washington, D.C.

The CLETS is a database containing information ranging from driving records to criminal records, the use of which is highly restricted and limited by law to “matters of public safety.”

Whether the use of CLETS was for a legitimate public safety purpose raises some interesting questions. In a recent educational seminar on the issue, the following hypothetical was posed: An officer is approached by two men. One, the elder of the two, presents the officer with a driver’s license and explains that his son has just returned from overseas, and before he (the father) will allow the son to use the family vehicle, he wanted to confirm that the license was still valid.

In this circumstance, is the officer permitted to utilize the CLETS to answer the question? Interestingly, if you ask a variety of folks who have access to the CLETS, you will get a myriad of responses. Either way, we should all be mindful of the following:

Over the last year, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of officers who have called the Legal Defense Fund, seeking assistance for their use/misuse of the CLETS. Although misuse may not have necessarily increased over the last year or so, I surmise that the increase in activity arises out of improved technology that tracks how and when the CLETS is used.

Moreover, a “zero tolerance” policy on the misuse of CLETS appears to have been adopted when it comes to officers accessing confidential information. Unauthorized use of CLETS typically leads to the loss of a job; however, many cases also lead to misdemeanor criminal charges.

Most of the time, the investigation into CLETS use first begins with some other form of allegation: an ex-wife accusing her former spouse of stalking; or, the day after a traffic stop, the subject of the stop receives a visit from the officer and a complaint ensues.

In one recent case published in the popular press, an officer was terminated for using the CLETS system to track his ex-girlfriend and stalk her. In another case, an officer used the confidential database to access information about his estranged wife and acquaintances.

In yet another case, a woman met an off-duty officer at a social event and following a long conversation, they parted ways. The next day, he appeared at her house after using CLETS to ascertain her residence.

While you might think, “I am not a stalker,” and not acting inappropriately, note the following situation: One officer was asked by a judge to look up information about a suspicious car parked in front of the judge’s residence. This officer was then accused of CLETS misuse.

Further, other officers have used the CLETS system to screen potential dating partners for themselves or their children or other family members. They too found themselves having to answer some tough questions.

While there may be legitimate or arguable law enforcement reasons for using the CLETS, be sure that each such use is clearly and openly documented and that reports are prepared as necessary to enable you to justify your actions. Otherwise, it may appear as though you are doing a favor for a friend, or looking up information for nefarious reasons.

Again, while technology can make our jobs easier and safer, it can also be a hindrance if used improperly. Please be careful, as the current trend seems to be allowing for very little forgiveness in this area.

PORAC Legal Defense Administrator Ed Fishman Testimony: Law Enforcement Use of Body Cameras.