Monday, July 14, 2008


Technology and the Keystone Cops

Last year, a man was arrested in the New York City for sending abusive and harrassing email messages. Only, he didn’t, a fact that would have been obvious to anyone with any sophistication in things email. The police, though, have no such sophistication, and the man, William Hallowell, went through a great deal of hassle, embarrassment, and tarnished reputation before the charges were dropped. He is now suing the city and the police for their handling of the case.

But what began as an innocent exchange of e-mail messages, Mr. Hallowell said, quickly spiraled into an Internet nightmare, with the librarian mistakenly sending another message meant for him to someone with a similar name, the recipient replying with a crude, abusive response, and the blame falling on Mr. Hallowell.

He was arrested on a harassment charge, interrogated, held in custody for more than 30 hours, and became the subject of local news articles, causing enormous embarrassment, he said in a lawsuit filed on Wednesday in Federal District Court in Manhattan.

In the suit, which names New York City and several police officers as defendants, Mr. Hallowell, 24, says that the officers “deliberately and maliciously ignored a mountain of evidence” that proved that he did not send the offending message.

In an interview, he added that the officers did not even seem to understand how e-mail addresses work.

This is reminiscent of the case of Julie Amero, the substitute teacher in Connecticut who was convicted, and faced 40 years in prison, because police, prosecutors, judges, and jurors do not understand computer technology and the Internet. Ms Amero’s conviction was vacated after three postponements of her sentencing, but only after a huge outcry from people who knew better, and from months of publicity about it. And only after her career was ruined — do we really think anyone will hire her to teach school again?

And so with Mr Hallowell, though, thankfully, it ended before he was convicted of the charges. Still, people know about it, and some are sure to be suspicious. “Was there really something there?”, they will wonder. “After all, it was dropped for lack of evidence. That’s just one of those technicalities that get too many guilty people off.” Will anyone be willing to employ him in a school again?

But one of Mr. Hallowell’s lawyers, Ilann M. Maazel, said the case showed how easy it was for innocent e-mail users to be victimized.

“This could happen to anybody,” he said, “if the police are going to have absolutely no competence when it comes to understanding e-mail or the Internet.”


William Hallowell said that he vigorously denied sending the lurid e-mail message, and that he invited the officers to review the e-mail messages in his computer. He said that he also showed them the exchange of messages he had earlier had with the librarian.

It was clear, he said, that his account did not contain any with the address linked to the abusive sender.

OK, first, I have to say that since I don’t have any of the evidence, since I have not talked with anyone involved, since I have no information other than what’s in the Times article, I’m just speculating here. But it’s speculation based on an understanding of how poorly the police and the courts generally handle these sorts of things, and how little they understand technology.

The thing is, there’s nothing you can do to protect yourself, and that’s a major difference between this case and the one of Ms Amero. Ms Amero could have turned off the computer, for example, contrary to the instructions she’d been given. But Mr Hallowell’s situation cropped up entirely independent of Mr Hallowell — he wasn’t even there. His boss simply used the wrong email address, and didn’t know that she had... and it became a snowball rolling downhill after that.

The answer to this, in general, is that police departments and courts must have access to expert technological advice on an ongoing basis. It’s not sufficient for the courtroom to be a battleground between expert witnesses for each side — that’s too late, and there are too many axes to grind at that point. The police need help in considering the evidence while they’re investigating. Just as the police can now show a guy to the victim and say, “See, the man you saw was over six feet tall; he’s only 5 foot 8. This isn’t the man you saw,” they have to be able to do equivalent things with Internet-related evidence.

Of course, police officers can’t be expected to know enough to do that, in general, any more than they can be expected to have medical or psychological knowledge. For those, they know they need to get advice, and they have ways to do it. Similar access to advice is needed here. And if the Times article is at all accurate, that would have been enough to turn the whole thing into nothing more than a brief annoyance to Mr Hallowell.

Update, 21 Nov: Mr Hallowell has gotten a settlement from the city:

New York City has agreed to pay just over $25,000 to a former private school employee who was arrested, interrogated and held by the police for more than 30 hours on a harassment charge after a bizarre e-mail mix-up last year, the man’s lawyer said on Thursday.


Anonymous said...

Police officers looking for exculpatory evidence. HA!

W.M. Irwin said...

I may be overgeneralizing a bit, but it seems to me that those involved with the prosecution side of our criminal justice system, from the police to the D.A.'s office, tend to act in a "Jekyll and Hyde" manner. When a crime is first being investigated, those charged with this task tend to do their work in a more or less unbiased way. But once a concensus has been reached and decision made as to who the suspect is, then everything changes into a game for the prosecution to try to win, with the suspect as nothing more than a tool to achieve that end. Forget inconvenient contradicting evidence and mitigating factors: the prosecution then thinks its task is to create and promote a piture of the suspect as being as foul and deserving of punishment as possible.