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Florida lawmaker proposes blocking public access to crime scene photos

Crime scene photos can be bloody, grisly and graphic. They can depict injury, mutilation and death.

They could also lead to another First Amendment fight reminiscent of the time Florida lawmakers blocked public access of autopsy photos after the death of NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt eight years ago.

Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd wants the Florida Legislature to limit who can obtain and view crime scene photos and videos of the dead or seriously injured. Judd said he has heard rumors that someone may be trying to obtain such images around the state.

The sheriff fears they'll eventually make their way online. He made an emotional case for blocking access:

"How many of the people reading this newspaper would want their loved ones who are deceased or severely injured in a crash to have their pictures placed on a blog or Web site just because Florida law allows it?"

Public access to such images should be unfettered, argued First Amendment Foundation director Adria Harper. Such photos can be used to make sure law enforcement is doing its job, she said, by helping relatives or the media make sure that someone died the way authorities describe.

"We have a First Amendment right and a constitutional right in Florida to monitor our government via public records," she said. "Of course some people will abuse it, but what's the alternative?

"The alternative is that we're always going to have to trust government when it says it's doing what it should be doing."

• • •

Critics of the 2001 law shielding autopsy photos made the same arguments, that without access to such materials, medical examiners couldn't be evaluated to make sure they were doing their jobs right.

The Orlando Sentinel didn't want to publish the photos of Earnhardt, but wanted an expert to look at them to see if better safety measures would have saved Earnhardt's life after he died in a last-lap crash at the Daytona 500.

A Web site that published photos of dead NASCAR drivers, however, did want to publish the photos.

Legislators rushed a bill into law blocking access to autopsy images after Teresa Earnhardt objected to the Sentinel's request to see images of her husband.

"People who abuse government records are a small minority," said Tampa media lawyer and foundation board member Carol LoCicero. "The abuse should be punished. Access shouldn't be shut down."

The statute exempting autopsy photos from public view survived judicial review and remains law to this day. That's why Judd said the crime scene photo law he supports was crafted to match the Earnhardt law.

• • •

Judd couldn't offer more specifics as to why the law is needed. He said he heard within the last year that someone requested these photos from a local law enforcement agency, but can't say which one.

No one has tried to request such records from his agency, he said.

"This is what we call legislation by anecdote," said the First Amendment Foundation's Harper. "People get wind of something that might happen and the first reaction is to create a public records exemption, which may or may not be justified."

The Polk sheriff got Rep. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, to sponsor the bill in the House.

"Unfortunately, there are people in the world who enjoy looking at things disturbing to the most of us," Stargel said. "No one wants to see their children or mother or father on a Web site. They don't want to see an individual who is exploiting their private tragedy."

Under current public records law, such images are available from law enforcement agencies after the criminal case has concluded.

The proposed law would limit immediate access to victim's families. The media or other individuals could access graphic crime scene materials only if they can persuade a judge to allow it. The law would be limited to images of the dead, severed extremities or images of someone's injuries.

"You can certainly feel sympathy towards the victim's family," said LoCicero. "The problem is, these photos can be really important for understanding the crime and the investigation. They're important government records that journalists analyze."

Judd and Stargel said their bill balances the right to privacy and the right to access public records. The First Amendment Foundation said Stargel has been open to discussions about the law.

But is a compromise really possible?

"It's the whole Earnhardt issue all over again," said LoCicero, "and nobody was able to compromise in a way that made everyone happy."

• • •

In 2003 the Legislature passed another law exempting photos or videos depicting sexual assault victims from public records law. That law was spurred by a convicted rapist's attempt to obtain explicit police photos of his victim while he was in prison.

Stargel asked Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, to sponsor a Senate version of the bill because of his law enforcement background as former sheriff of Citrus County. It's too soon to tell what chances the crime scene photo bill has of passing.

"Sometimes we see bills move at the very last minute," Harper said.

The bill hasn't even been set for discussion at a committee level yet. But a big indicator of success will be whether it has the support of law enforcement.

The Florida Sheriff's Association and the Florida Police Chiefs Association said they don't have official positions on the bill yet. Judd, though, said he will lobby for their support. "I can't imagine in my wildest imagination that the police chiefs and sheriff's wouldn't support this legislation," he said.

It already has the support of Pinellas Sheriff Jim Coats: "It's a good bill. It would make good law."

What does Gov. Charlie Crist, who has to sign such legislation before it becomes law, think?

A spokesman said the governor won't decide until the law is passed and sitting on his desk.

Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

Florida lawmaker proposes blocking public access to crime scene photos 03/06/09 [Last modified: Monday, March 9, 2009 9:06am]

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