Aug 162009
 August 16, 2009  Posted by  Court, Featured News, U.S.

We’ve seen a few cases in the past few years where someone was ordered to turn over a password to a computer system or the encryption key. But now a dispute over the security of a law enforcement database has two county agencies in Maricopa Arizona battling in court and a judge threatening the sheriff’s office with contempt of court if they do not turn it over.

It seems to have started with an interagency dispute as to which agency should control access to a computer system that serves both the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) and the county’s board of supervisors. Three other agencies also use the computer system, including the Maricopa County Attorney. On the system is a database — the integrated criminal justice information system (ICJIS) — that stores criminal records and information. When budget cuts were made, the county manager had reportedly moved the system’s information-technology positions to the Office of Enterprise Technology, which essentially gave control of the system to the county instead of to the sheriff’s office. In April, the MCSO sued the county supervisors to get control over it, citing state and federal law that allegedly requires that a criminal-justice agency manage the system.

On Wednesday, the MCSO took action, even though the matter was still before the court. Depending on whose version you believe, and claiming that the state Department of Public Safety was concerned that civilians could have inappropriate access to criminal records in the system and that they feared an intrusion or breach was “imminent,” the MCSO either: (a) stormed the county building, threatened county workers with arrest if they interfered, and then proceeded to change the passwords on the computers or (b) just went in and responsibly changed the password so that only law enforcement personnel could access the ICJIS.

On Thursday, the Board of Supervisors and county administrators tried to get a temporary restraining order against the Sheriff’s Office and to get the system back under their control. The judge declined to issue the order and the hearing continued into Friday. The Phoenix New Times live blogged the two days of hearings. According to the paper:

The sometimes-jocular Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Joseph Heilman didn’t seem to be fooling around: Near the conclusion of today’s hearing, he said he wants the Sheriff’s Office to turn over the computer system’s administrative password to IT guru Tom Gendron [Gendron is an IT consultant who works for ICJIS] by Wednesday.

Hendershott, Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s top administrator, huddled for a few seconds with the two lawyers for Arpaio. Then Kerry Martin, the lead lawyer, told the judge his client was “unable” to give the password to Gendron.

That rankled the judge, who said whoever violated his order would be held in contempt. After a few more affairs were put in order, Heilman ended the hearing by again warning that if the password wasn’t divulged, “someone” was going to be held in contempt. To hammer home his point, he looked at Arpaio’s team and said it would likely be someone sitting at that table.

The defense’s reason for not providing the password relates to the very same federal and state laws that they insist require them to be in charge of the security of the database.

In the interim, the judge ordered that no additional changes be made to the computer system. He also reportedly ordered representatives of the five stakeholder agencies to meet next week, but according to the Phoenix New Times coverage, no one seemed to be sure who those representatives were.

To complicate matters even more, the Arizona Republic reports that

Hendershott said the Sheriff’s Office is conducting a criminal investigation into suspected mismanagement of the computer system.

He said the investigation targets Superior Court presiding Judge Barbara Mundell, County Manager Smith and other county personnel.

He did not provide details on the investigation.

The Phoenix New Times adds that Hendershott “did say he had questions about a half-million-dollar “donation” to the county from a computer company.”

Will the MCSO back down and turn over the password as ordered, or will the sheriff go to jail? We’ll have to wait to see what happens next week.

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