PUBLIC INFORMATION -- The California Newspaper Publishers Association (CNPA) is opposing a bill that would remove from public access information the state believes would compromise the security of state information technology systems, and another bill that would allow the sealing of evidence bearing on the death of a minor child.


AB 2091 by Assemblywoman Connie Conway (R-Visalia) in its original form would have created  a very broad exemption making it difficult for the public to determine whether, when and how the security of state IT systems—including but not limited to those carrying personal information about members of the public—had been breached.  A narrower version of the bill now exempts "an information security record of a public agency, if disclosure of that record would reveal vulnerabilities to, or otherwise increase the potential for an attack on, an information technology system of a public agency. " CNPA, which has opposed the bill from the outset, now wants to keep this "if" clause from becoming a routine assumption on the government's part by inserting, after the "if," the qualifier "on the facts of the particular case."  The bill has passed the Assembly and is due to be heard  in the Senate Judiciary Committee tomorrow (Tuesday, June 22).

Set for hearing in Senate Judiciary a week from tomorrow is a far more serious limitation on public information.  SB 982 would give the biological, adoptive or foster parent of a child murdered or otherwise criminally killed, or the child's spouse or guardian, the right upon simple request to have the autopsy report sealed, together with any associated "object, writing, diagram, recording, computer file, photograph, video, DVD, CD, film, digital device, or other item which was collected during or serves to document the autopsy." The sealing request would not be available to a person charged with or convicted of criminal responsibility for the homicide.  

The law already prohibits the making of a copy, reproduction, or facsimile of any kind of photos, negatives, or print of the body, or any portion of the body, of a deceased person taken by or for the coroner at the scene of death or in the course of a postmortem exam or autopsy made by or caused to be made by the coroner, except for use in a criminal proceeding.  In addition, any coroner's report in the case of a suspicious death may be withheld from the public indefinitely as part of a criminal investigative file, the California Court of Appeal has held.

The bill, authored by Senator Dennis Hollingsworth (R-San Diego) and sponsored by the San Diego District Attorney's office, was prompted by the refusal of a judge to grant the request of the parents of rape and murder victim Chelsea King, 17, of Poway, to seal all records in the case.

Arguments against the measure were summarized in an editorial today in the Sacramento Bee.

The impulse for such a law is understandable perhaps,
but the bill is unwise public policy. As the Child
Advocacy Institute
noted in its letter of opposition, 61 percent of
American children under age 5 who were murdered during the last quarter
of the 20th century, were killed by their own parents.

Even
where parents are not implicated in a murder, their interests should not
be the only or even the most important interests considered as criminal
justice officials compile evidence in murder cases involving children
or anyone else. The entire community has a vital interest in bringing
murderers to justice.

Sealing key evidence like an autopsy report from public scrutiny can
actually impede justice.

Just a few months ago, The Bee published a
series of investigative reports about the mysterious death of foster
child Amariana
Crenshaw.
That report was informed, in large part by, a
re-examination of Amariana's autopsy reports that The Bee instigated.
After
reviewing the reports, different coroners from around the country
reached different conclusions about how the 4-year-old died. Those
reviews raised questions about Amariana's former foster parent. They
became a significant factor in the decision by the state of California to first remove other foster children from
Amariana's foster parent's home and prevent other juvenile wards of the
court from being placed there.

The California Newspaper Publishers Association also
opposes the bill. Not only does sealing public documents like autopsy
reports violate the public's right to know about how its government,
particularly the criminal justice system, operates, it could have tragic
unintended consequences for law enforcement. Police often rely on information
disseminated by the newspapers and television to help solve crimes.
Sealing
autopsy reports at the behest of parents hurts law enforcement and the
public. Senate Bill 982 is a bill legislators should reject, quickly and
decisively.