PUBLIC INFORMATION -- A bill intended to end journalists' access to the home addresses of all crime victims failed passage today on a party-line vote in the seven-member Assembly Committee on Public Safety after a presentation based on myths and distortion, but was given a chance at reconsideration in the coming days.

Strikingly, the measure only yesterday passed the Assembly Local Government Committee by a unanimous 20 Aye votes.

Today's myths were voiced by the author, Assembly Member Norma Torres (D-Ontario), who told the committee that without her AB 1682, victims were exposed to intimidation or retaliation by criminal gang members and other ruthless predators, chilling them from cooperating with investigations or prosecution, because the California Public Records Act (CPRA) makes the addresses available to journalists and researchers for scholarly, governmental or political purposes.

This representation is a myth because neither the well-meaning author nor the bill's sponsor, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, in the three months since the measure was introduced, has been able to cite a single instance of such access leading to harm to victims.  The lack of any record of harm should not be surprising.

From 1982, when the addresses of victims of crime (other than sexual assault and child abuse) were first added to the CPRA's disclosure list by legislation directed by Governor Edmund G. Brown, Jr., until 1995, when access became restricted to the currently specified purposes, the general public had an unconditional right to obtain this information, yet even then it was not exploited by those threatening or punishing victims. 

Moreover, no contemporary newspaper or other journalistic enterprise in the state actually publishes victims' home addresses. The access to them is not used for inclusion in a story but to give the public, by reference to a certain block or other general location, some sense of which neighborhood the crime occurred in, or to allow reporters to reach and interview at least willing victims to clear up factual gaps in the official account released by law enforcement agencies. 

It is this follow-up checking with victims that is clearly the real target for elimination, although the sponsor has almost certainly not shared this hidden agenda with the author.

The distortion came in the testimony of a lieutenant from the LA Sheriff's department who argued that restriction of access to journalistic purposes was no longer secure since "the courts have ruled that anyone can be a journalist."  In fact, no court has ever been confronted with the "journalistic purpose" issue in the CPRA.  The closest approximation to the issue is an opinion from the California Court of Appeal deciding who is a "journalist" entitled to protect confidential sources from court-compelled disclosure under by the state constitution's "shield law."  That case concluded that an Internet website regularly reporting news of trade interest in the personal computer market was a "periodical publication" that qualified as a form of journalism warranting the constitutional shield. 

But that conclusion would have little or no relevance in a lawsuit brought to challenge a police department's refusal to provide access to an unknown requester for victim's addresses.  And what criminal would step into the public spotlight to bring such a suit?  If the notion is that even without litigation somehow departments would be compelled—against their better judgment—to give out the information to any stranger walking in claiming the journalistic access, that idea is nothing short of ludicrous. These departments are not shy at saying no to strangers, or even recognized requesters.

The audit of some 216 local law enforcement agencies throughout the state conducted in 2007 by Californians Aware to measure their compliance with the basics of public records law found most departments falling down on the fundamentals and concluded:

Many if not most California policing agencies
fail the open government obligations that they share with other public
agencies so radically that it is hard to view them as part of the same
public universe.


Those obligations are to know the rudiments of
the California Public Records Act and to treat unfamiliar citizens who
request information with at least the same readiness to provide it as is
granted to journalists, without demanding identity and other
disclosures that are neither sanctioned by the law nor explained by
innocent need. In this audit the most common experience was that the
requester was required to provide his or her identification, purpose
and/or affiliation, but then left the department or office empty-handed,
and at best waited one or more weeks to learn whether any information
would be forthcoming at all.

Most information was not forthcoming.
Ironically, the only requests made in the audit of sheriff’s and police
departments that led more than half of them (52 percent) to provide
access was for copies of the department’s public information policy and
of its fee policy for copies of crime reports for victims. CHP offices
at this writing (about a month later) have yet to provide any information.

Another common pattern was that the departmental
clerk or spokesperson, instead of taking the responsibility for
assembling records requested by the auditor — all of which dealt with
the department’s own operations or personnel — sent the auditor to other
departments of the city, county or CHP bureaucracy in search of the
information. In such cases it seems likely that the audited department
already had copies of the information or could easily obtain it.


Legislation cannot compel common sense,
courtesy or a sense of professionalism and responsibility, whose
presence in most of these departments would have made so much
difference.

But training is clearly in order. Whatever
departmental or CHP leaders may know, those who deal directly with the
public far too often not only do not know the California Public Records
Act and related laws, but what is worse, do not appreciate how
misinformed they are
.

Such a confident fund of false facts, combined
with a mindset that too often considers the questioning stranger a
potential threat to be probed rather than a citizen to be helped, is
seldom the fault of those it afflicts. Most literally do not know any
better. But that will be of little comfort to the baffled if not
intimidated person who is turned away knowing only that his or her name
has been filed as someone asking questions.

The introduced version of AB 1682 would have crippled journalistic access by eliminating specific address disclosures for both victims of and those arrested for crime and instead supplying only their "city of residence."  That approach was dropped without a hearing, and the current proposal is to simply let cities and counties give their law enforcement agencies authority to write their own rules for protection of victims' addresses and even identities—plus a wide range of other victim information that is never either given out or even asked for—in response to a victim's request for anonymity.