PUBLIC INFORMATION — Californians Aware and the California Newspaper Publishers Association are opposing a bill, up for its first committee hearing next Monday, that would remove the addresses of all those arrested and all crime victims from the public record, leaving only the city of residence, if any, listed.

AB 1682 by Assemblywoman Norma Torres (D-Ontario) will be heard in the Assembly Committee on Governmental Organization. CalAware's opposition letter reads as follows:

Dear Assemblymember

Aware strongly opposes AB 1682, which would eliminate any public access to the
addresses of crime victims and arrestees in police and sheriff’s records, which
are now available only to those with sworn declarations asserting a scholarly,
journalistic, political or governmental purpose for such access.  Instead, these screened,
special-purpose recipients would be able to learn only the “current city of
residence” of crime victims and arrestees.

understand that the bill was introduced at the urging of Los Angeles County
Sheriff Lee Baca out of the supposed concern that, to quote a newspaper
account, “gang members and crime syndicates can pose as journalists, scholars
or political operatives, to obtain address information of crime victims. But he
acknowledged that this has never happened, though it is ‘only a matter of time.’”

it is “only a matter of time” before any item of public information, or any
personal liberty in our democracy, or any civil right we enjoy, is exploited in
some criminal fashion. Only a society in which the government alone has access
to the facts of what is happening— and the freedoms to speak and act on them—can
guarantee that gangs and crime syndicates need not be feared. But then a
government with such a monopoly on information and expression is itself the
ultimate crime syndicate, as our grandparents learned to their dire cost in
their encounters with totalitarian regimes in the last century.

The truism
that criminal exploitation of a freedom “is only a matter of time” is never a
rational basis for responsible legislation abridging that freedom. Regarding AB
1682 in particular, without specific evidence that the extremely limited degree
of public access in the current law is in fact being exploited as the sheriff
hypothesizes, the bill is a solution looking for a problem.

And it is a
solution that will cause confusion and a risk of reputational or privacy injury
to many people.  The reason that
precise addresses of those who experience or are arrested for crime is valuable
to news organizations is the recurring need to contact these individuals or
their families or neighbors to obtain meaningful information for the public
that law enforcement agencies seldom provide themselves—and also to check the
officially described version of a crime or arrest for accuracy.  This is not an indulgence to “the
media.”  Providing the public with
a clear, checked view of what government agencies are doing and saying is the
fundamental duty of the press in a democracy, which is why sham democracies
like those controlling Russia and Iran make sure the press cannot do that job.

At a
practical level, then, the press cannot do its job of providing meaningful
context to news of crime without the ability to find and talk to the
individuals involved when circumstances dictate. AB 1682 would make that job
impossible without a much greater effort than almost any downsized newsroom
staff would permit, and the result would be a repeated source of embarrassment
to many people with common names. 

The website lists 165 Norma Torreses in California: six in Fresno, five in
Los Angeles, four each in the cities of Perris, Oxnard, Bakersfield and
Escondido, three each in Wilmington, Ontario, Lancaster and Corona, and so
on.  If a Norma Torres listed in
any of these cities—except perhaps Ontario—is arrested on suspicion of assault
with a deadly weapon, or identified as the victim of the assault, in a reported
bar brawl, several Normas in each of these cities may have some explaining to
do to family, friends and work associates if all the press or anyone else is
allowed to learn is the city of residence.  The problem is only worse for those with very common names—John
Smith or Jose Lopez—who have no city of residence because they live in
unincorporated areas of a county.

Added to
that reality is the preposterousness of the underlying sinister scenario
presented by the sheriff.  In the
relatively unusual instance where a violent gang member or criminal confederate
does not already know the victim’s home address (because that is where the
crime occurred, or because the victim is already known to the perpetrator), is
that offender going to risk walking into a police or sheriff’s station, show
credible ID and sign a sworn statement of journalistic, scholarly, political or
governmental purpose—a process yielding his or her fingerprints, however
inadvertently—when the information can be obtained with little expense or
effort—and no immediate exposure to law enforcement—on the Internet?

reconsider the balance of undemonstrated need for this bill against the
likelihood of serious confusion in the public’s perception of crime, and
withdraw the measure accordingly.