By Anne Lowe

FREE PRESS — Last-minute amendments to a bill aiming to increase punishment for Hollywood paparazzi who violate traffic laws could also lead to serious problems for ordinary journalists in transit to breaking news stories, warns the California Newspaper Publishers Association.

CNPA has issued a letter of opposition to AB 2479, a bill introduced by former Assembly Speaker Karen Bass that would increase penalties for photojournalists, including those for the print media or television, who violate any of three existing traffic laws. The letter notes:

The August 20 amendments, drafted and sponsored by Los Angeles City Attorney Carmen Trutanich, would make it a misdemeanor instead of an infraction to violate any of three existing Vehicle Code Sections — tailgating, reckless driving and interfering with the operation of a vehicle — “with the intent to capture any type of visual image, sound recording, or other physical impression of another person for a commercial purpose.” The bill would create enhanced punishment: more than two-and-a-half times the penalties for reckless driving without the intent to capture an image, and in the case of reckless driving that places a child in harm’s way, six times as much punishment than for regular violators, up to a maximum $5000 fine and one year imprisonment. 
    AB 2479 would also amend the state's civil anti-paparazzi law (Civil Code Sec. 1708.8) to include "false imprisonment that is committed in order to obtain a visual image or other impression of the person.” 

The letter  says the changes could potentially affect a journalist’s ability to pursue breaking news stories.

While CNPA has no issue with the underlying reckless driving laws and penalties, which are laws of general application, the most recent amendments, while likely intended to solely curb the most virulent paparazzi, would create the potential for extreme criminal penalties for members of the mainstream press in transit to any number of emergency scenes or any scene in which news is happening.  Newspaper journalists and photographers travel as quickly as possible to fires, floods, crime scenes, terrorist attacks, accidents and every other breaking news scene one can imagine.  While CNPA would argue that in no case is this driving by a journalist with the intent to capture an image of a person done “for a commercial purpose,” it is not inconceivable that a journalist or freelance photographer could be hailed into court and subjected to these new charges and more extreme penalties.  The chilling impact of this proposed language is palpable.
    We also note the new provisions do not require that the attempt to capture an image occur at the same time as the reckless driving violation, that the attempted capture of an image occur while the defendant is in a vehicle, moving or otherwise, or that the attempt ever occurs at all.  So long as there is intent to capture an image of another person while driving recklessly, even if the time and place for that attempt is hours away and the person is not driving at all when the attempt is made, or if the attempt is never made, the enhanced punishment would appear to lie.
    Again, CNPA takes no issue with laws of general application.  If an employee of a member newspaper is charged and convicted of reckless driving, they should be punished the same as any other member of society.  To subject a person to extreme liability solely because he or she intends to capture an image of another person, though, would put journalists in a class by themselves. 

The press has recently reported that former Speaker Bass missed more floor sessions for other than health reasons than any other member of the Assembly, and continued to use a state-paid security detail while on campaign travel seeking a Congressional seat.