A California appeals court has affirmed a judge’s decision to throw out a lawsuit challenging a state law requiring therapists to report patients who admit to viewing child pornography to the police, capping a two-year legal battle over patient privacy rights.
Two therapists and a substance abuse counselor who treat sexual addiction sued the state in 2015, arguing that changes to the Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act violate a patient’s constitutionally protected right to privacy and deter them from getting help.
The state countered that a patient's right to privacy is outweighed by a far more compelling interest in protecting sexually exploited children.
A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge tossed the case, ruling that there’s no “zone of privacy” for illegal conduct and that patients who seek therapy for downloading child pornography do so knowing they’ll be reported and may be prosecuted.
In its ruling Monday, a three-judge panel for the 2nd District Court of Appeal agreed, stating that the conduct is not entitled to constitutional protection.
“Not only is it illegal, the conduct is reprehensible, shameful and abhorred by any decent and normal standards of society,” the ruling stated, adding that the Legislature long ago determined that child abuse should be reported to authorities. “There is no egregious breach of social norms in requiring reports of such criminal activity.”
The state law is “reasonably calculated to further the purpose of protecting abused and sexually exploited children,” the opinion stated.
Michael Alvarez, a Torrance therapist who was one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, was disappointed by the ruling, which he said endangers children by discouraging patients from seeking treatment.
“There’s this whole category of people who want help and need help and aren’t going to get help,” Alvarez said, adding that he personally has stopped treating people who are attracted to children.
Numerous patients admit to downloading and viewing child pornography but don’t present a danger to children, he said. Instead, they feel repulsed by the urges and seek help.
“Professionals with my background and my expertise no longer have clinical discretion,” he said. “I cannot say, ‘I believe this person, even though they’re looking at child pornography, is not a danger to children.’ ”
The law, which went into effect in early 2015, amended the definition of “sexual exploitation” that must be reported to include the acts of downloading, streaming or accessing child pornography electronically. That includes teens who exchange nude photographs of each other.
Previously, therapists were required to alert authorities when there was a reasonable suspicion that a person knowingly developed, duplicated, printed or exchanged child pornography.
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