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Sheriff takes aim at celebrity leaks

Crime, Law and JusticeLaw EnforcementNews MediaCrimeJails and PrisonsGovernmentNational Government

SACRAMENTO -- Amid concern over the frenzy of entertainment blogs and tabloids competing for inside information on Paris Hilton's days in jail and Mel Gibson's tirade during a drunk-driving arrest, state lawmakers have taken steps to clamp down on some forms of checkbook journalism.

A bill wending its way through the Legislature would make it a crime for law enforcement or court employees to profit by releasing confidential information gathered in criminal investigations or unauthorized photographs of people in custody.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, who requested the legislation, said it was needed to preserve the integrity of the justice system in an age when media experts said a photo of a jailed Paris Hilton could fetch up to $500,000. "It was like putting a bounty on her," Baca said in an interview.

Opponents say the measure would whittle away press freedoms for the convenience of celebrities.

"It's the Paris Hilton and Mel Gibson Protection Act," said Tom Newton, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Assn. "Fundamentally, it attempts to regulate news gathering and criminalize it."

Hilton, who was sentenced after violating terms of her probation on alcohol-related charges of reckless driving, spent 23 days in Lynwood's Century Regional Detention Facility with a media horde waiting outside for any information on her incarceration. No photographs have been published of Hilton in her cell.

An ongoing investigation into the leaking of police documents in the Mel Gibson case has not found evidence that information was released to the entertainment blog TMZ.com for financial gain. TMZ published parts of a deputy's account of actor-director Mel Gibson spouting anti-Semitic remarks as he was being arrested in Malibu.

Still, Baca and Assemblywoman Julia Brownley (D-Santa Monica), author of AB 920, said there have been other allegations of law enforcement officials providing prohibited information for cash. The bill would apply to information provided to any unauthorized person, not only journalists.

Recently the indictment of Hollywood private investigator Anthony Pellicano on charges including illegal wiretapping involved allegations that he paid members of law enforcement agencies for confidential information while doing background checks in cases involving celebrities, including comedians Garry Shandling and Kevin Nealon.

In a statement to the Assembly, Brownley said the "so-called traditional media [have] obtained information and pictures through official channels and via the Public Records Act. The new Internet media and others have recently been attempting to circumvent the system by offering law enforcement officials money for information and pictures of celebrities."

The bill would make it a misdemeanor for those entrusted with such material to receive financial gain in exchange for confidential information obtained in a criminal investigation, or to solicit or offer financial compensation for such information. The ban would include "any unauthorized photograph or video taken inside any secure area of a law enforcement or court facility."

Brownley said she introduced the bill at Baca's request.

"I felt it was important to help law enforcement to maintain the integrity of the criminal justice system," she said.

Baca's office is investigating the leak of Gibson's police report to TMZ.com after the star's arrest in July 2006. "When we arrested Mel Gibson we lost control of the information and it ended up on a blog," Baca said. "The question is whether that was done for profit or gratuitously."

In another incident, an LAPD investigation determined last month that one of the agency's officers used a cellphone to shoot video of the rapper known as The Game as he was held in a jail cell after being arrested. The video, provided to TMZ.com, showed the entertainer bragging and waving a wad of money.

TMZ posted the video May 12, the day after the Los Angeles Police Department arrested the rapper at his Glendale home on suspicion of making criminal threats during a pickup basketball game in South Los Angeles.

Investigators said the unidentified officer insisted that he provided the video to TMZ for fun, and they have not found any evidence that the officer was compensated.

Brownley's bill passed the Assembly in May and has cleared one Senate committee. The governor has not taken a public position on the measure, but Newton predicted that if the bill becomes law, it probably will be struck down by the courts.

A similar law, enacted after football star O.J. Simpson was found not guilty of murdering his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ron Goldman in 1994, was overturned the following year. The Legislature had sought to limit the ability of jurors and witnesses to sell their stories to the media.

Brownley's bill is also opposed by the California First Amendment Coalition. The group does not condone payment for information from public officials, Executive Director Peter Scheer said. But it objected to wording in the bill that would have banned the exchange of information for "consideration" or "compensation."

The group feared that promises to protect a public official's anonymity, or even lunch or a cup of coffee bought for such an official, could be deemed "consideration."

Brownley struck "consideration" and "compensation" from the bill, substituting "financial gain." And she took pains to assure journalists that the bill would not prohibit a newspaper or blog from publishing information obtained improperly.

Scheer said he would review the changes before determining whether the coalition would drop its opposition.

Brownley said the bill would not quash acts protected by state whistle-blower laws, including the release of information involving allegations of improper activity by government agencies or officials.

In one such case, some deputy sheriffs complained after Hilton's release that she received special treatment in jail, including a new jail uniform rather than a used one, mail hand-delivered by department brass and free access to a cellphone while other prisoners had to wait in line to use pay phones during set hours.

Baca said he was concerned about confidential information being sold even if it was not about celebrities.

"We in law enforcement have a tremendous amount of information," and providing it to anyone "for profit is wrong," Baca said.

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patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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