Web Site Causes Unease in Police
July 12, 2003 -- William
Sheehan does not like the police. He expresses his views about what he calls police corruption in Washington State on his
Web site, where he also posts lists of police officers' addresses, home phone numbers and Social Security numbers.
State officials say those postings expose officers and their families to
danger and invite identity theft. However, neither litigation nor legislation has stopped Mr. Sheehan, who promises to expand
his site to include every police and corrections officer in the state by the end of the year.
Mr. Sheehan says he obtains the information lawfully, from voter registration,
property, motor vehicle, and other official records. But his provocative use of personal data raises questions about how the
law should address the dissemination of accurate, publicly available information that is selected and made accessible in a
way that may facilitate the invasion of privacy, computer crime, even violence.
Larry Erickson, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs
and Police Chiefs, says the organization's members are disturbed by Mr. Sheehan's site.
"Police officers go out at night," Mr. Erickson said, "they make people
mad, and they leave their families behind."
The law generally draws no distinction between information that is nominally
public but hard to obtain and information that can be fetched with an Internet search engine and a few keystrokes. The dispute
over Mr. Sheehan's site is similar to a debate that has been heatedly taken up around the nation, about whether court records
that are public in paper form should be freely available on the Internet.
In 1989, in a case not involving computer technology, the Supreme Court
did allow the government to refuse journalists' Freedom of Information Act request for paper copies of information it had
compiled from arrest and conviction records available in scattered public files. The court cited the "practical obscurity"
of the original records.
Nevertheless, once accurate information is in private hands like Mr. Sheehan's,
the courts have been extremely reluctant to interfere with its dissemination.
Mr. Sheehan, a 41-year-old computer engineer in Mill Creek, Wash., near
Seattle, says his postings hold the police accountable, by facilitating picketing, the serving of legal papers and research
into officers' criminal histories. His site collects news articles and court papers about what he describes as inadequate
and insincere police investigations, and about police officers who have themselves run afoul of the law.
His low opinion of the police has its roots, Mr. Sheehan says, in a 1998
dispute with the Police Department of Kirkland, Wash., over whether he lied in providing an alibi for a friend charged with
domestic violence. Mr. Sheehan was found guilty of making a false statement and harassing a police officer and was sentenced
to six months in jail, but served no time: the convictions were overturned.
He started his Web site in the spring of 2001.
Last year, in response to a complaint by the Kirkland police about Mr.
Sheehan's site, the Washington Legislature enacted a law prohibiting the dissemination of the home addresses, phone numbers,
birth dates and Social Security numbers of law enforcement, corrections and court personnel if it was meant "to harm or intimidate."
As a result, Mr. Sheehan, who had taken delight in bringing his project
to the attention of local police departments, removed those pieces of information from his site. But he put them back in May,
when a federal judge, deciding on a challenge brought by Mr. Sheehan himself, struck down the law as unconstitutional.
Fred Olson, a spokesman for the state attorney general, Christine O. Gregoire,
said the state would not appeal Judge Coughenour's decision.
"Our attorneys reviewed the decision and the case law," Mr. Olson said,
"and they just felt there was very, very little likelihood that we would prevail on appeal. Our resources are much better
used to find a legislative solution."
However, Bill Finkbeiner, a state senator who was the main sponsor of the
law that was struck down, said the judge's opinion left little room for a legislative repair. He said he was frustrated.
"This isn't just bad for police officers and corrections employees," Mr.
Finkbeiner said. "It really doesn't bode well for anybody. Access to personal information changes when that information is
put in electronic form."
Lt. Rex Caldwell, a spokesman for the Police Department in Kirkland, said
his colleagues there were resigned to Mr. Sheehan's site, and added that much of the information posted on it was out of date.
He said some officers even welcomed the posting of their home addresses, if that encouraged Mr. Sheehan to visit.
"If he wants to drop by the house," Lieutenant Caldwell said, "the police
officers would be more than happy to welcome him. We're all armed and trained." -- Edited and excerpted from the article by Adam Liptak in the New York Times
William Sheehan's bio at his website is short:
"This site is owned and operated by myself, a veteran of the US Navy. I'm
not giving out my name any more BECAUSE the cops harass me, not the criminals. Nice huh! At least it gives my site credibility."