Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd wants a new law sharply limiting public access to crime scene photos. He claims he is seeking to protect victims' and their families' privacy. But Judd may also have another motive, and that is to protect police investigations from being second-guessed by the media.
A spotlight has been turned on Judd's office since St. Petersburg Times staff writer Meg Laughlin unearthed evidence that a Polk sheriff's deputy was shielded from scrutiny after a deadly car accident. Due to Laughlin's reporting, state law enforcement officials are reviewing the investigation at Gov. Charlie Crist's request.
The case involves a 2002 car accident that killed Miles White, 16, a passenger in a Volkswagen Passat driven by Adam Jacoby, 18. The car ran off a dark country road, hit a tree and split in two.
Laughlin found Polk sheriff's Deputy Scott Lawson had chased the Passat for 15 miles at speeds averaging more than 100 mph in an unmarked car. But the Sheriff's Office didn't interview Lawson and determined Jacoby was "solely responsible." Lawson is now in prison after pleading guilty to unrelated charges of sexual battery on young men.
In piecing together the accident, the Times submitted crime scene photos to two independent forensic engineers for analysis. Both engineers concluded there was indisputable physical evidence the Passat left the road after being hit — presumably by Lawson.
Laughlin's reporting didn't require looking at photos that included the deceased's body. But Judd's effort to make some crime scene photos difficult to obtain is objectionable nonetheless because it will curtail the public's oversight of law enforcement.
Bills sponsored by Rep. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, HB 277, and Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, SB 636, would create a public records exemption for videos and photographs that depict severe injuries or a deceased person. Beyond victims or their families, the only way for the public to view these images would be by asking a judge to grant access.
Judd says he is worried such photos may end up on exploitative Web sites, causing victims' families great pain. The plea is similar to one made by the widow of NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt. She succeeded in forcing a change to Florida law to shield autopsy photos after the Orlando Sentinel sought her husband's autopsy photos. The newspaper planned to ask an expert to review them to find whether additional safety measures might have saved Earnhardt's life.
Crime scene photos are of great public interest. Such images can establish whether a person died in the way that law enforcement claims or whether police investigated adequately. Giving police the power to cloak some images undermines the opportunities for independent review and the public's ability to judge the integrity of law enforcement investigations.
Supporters of the legislation will argue judges can still grant access. But the cost of going to court will deter many media outlets and most members of the public. Whether by design or not, the legislation is a way to slam the door on legitimate inquiries about police investigations involving fatal injuries. Maybe that is exactly what Judd intends.