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Unauthorized photos from Kobe Bryant crash site prompt tougher California privacy law

Fans gather at a memorial for Kobe Bryant at Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles earlier this year.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Amid outrage over Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies sharing graphic photos from the helicopter crash that killed Lakers star Kobe Bryant, the California Senate on Friday approved a bill that would make it a crime for first responders to take pictures of dead people for reasons other than official investigations.

The bill, which had previously been approved by the Assembly, must still be signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Assemblyman Mike Gipson (D-Carson) introduced the bill after the Los Angeles Times reported that deputies shared photographs of the scene of the Jan. 26 crash that killed Bryant, his daughter and seven others in Calabasas.

Gipson said he was “mortified” to hear that first responders shared unauthorized photos from the crash scene.

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“The actions of the first responders involved were unacceptable, and they highlighted a problem that demands a strong remedy,” Gipson said. “I took this on as a great responsibility to ensure that those who are trusted to secure scenes of great disaster and death are not abusing their power for personal pleasure.”

The measure, which was proposed by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, would make it a misdemeanor for a law enforcement official to photograph a deceased person at a crime or accident scene unless required for an official investigation, punishable by up to a year in jail and up to $1,000 in fines.

The measure “seeks to address a significant deficiency in current law and brings peace of mind to the families of accident victims,” L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said.

Three days after the helicopter crash that killed Bryant, an L.A. County deputy was at a Norwalk bar and allegedly showed other patrons gruesome photos taken at the scene. After a citizen complained, Villanueva acknowledged that the department ordered deputies to delete the images.

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The sheriff’s department also launched an investigation into the incident, and Villanueva asked his agency’s chief watchdog to monitor the inquiry.

An attorney for Vanessa Bryant, the widow of Kobe Bryant and mother of Gianna Bryant, 13, who was also killed in the crash, called the alleged behavior by deputies “inexcusable and deplorable.”

Current law generally prohibits reproduction of photographs taken by a coroner of a body at a crime or accident scene, but there is no ban on unauthorized photos taken by first responders, including police officers, firefighters and ambulance crews, state officials said.

The existence of cellphone technology and social media platforms makes it possible for inappropriate images to be captured and uploaded onto the web, where they can be downloaded, viewed and re-sent hundreds of thousands of times, a letter from the Sheriff’s Department notes.

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“This act is extremely insensitive and can negatively affect grieving families and loved ones who may not have yet been made aware of their loved one’s death,” the letter said.


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