Nikki Catsouras

Can Car Crash Photos Change Internet Law?

April 28, 2009 07:20 AM
by Sarah Amandolare
Legal rights to privacy on the Web are being tested again after grisly photos of a fatal car crash were posted online and the victim's family sued.

Law Fails to Keep Up With Internet Age

Christos and Lesli Catsouras point to their daughter Nikki's childhood brain tumor as reason for the lapse in judgment that led to her death—a tragedy that grew worse when gruesome photos of the crash scene were leaked online by two officers from the California Highway Patrol (CHP). But the Catsouras family has taken legal action against the officers, and the case could have a significant impact on how Internet privacy and defamation are addressed by courts, according to Newsweek.

After first filing a complaint, the family sued the CHP "for negligence, privacy invasion and infliction of emotional harm, among other charges," but the case was dismissed because no law had been violated and because privacy rights are not applicable to the dead, reported Newsweek. Since then, the family has appealed the decision, and some legal experts think progress can be made.

Other courts have "concluded that families of deceased individuals do have privacy rights to the deceased," Daniel Solove, a George Washington University law professor told Newsweek. But the Catsouras family's case "illustrates how the law has struggled to define how legal concepts like privacy and defamation are translated into an online world."

The case has led some to draw comparisons with the Rihanna case, in which photos of the pop singer's bruised face were released online. Police told the Orange County Register that "there are preventive measures in place to keep evidence—such as crime photos—from being distributed." However, such measures are reliant on police integrity.

In the media, names and photos of "victims of sexual assault or domestic violence" are typically withheld to protect privacy and identity of victims. Authorities say the high-profile leak could weaken victims' trust in law enforcement agencies, making them less likely to report crimes. The LAPD is currently conducting an internal investigation into the photo's release.

An attorney for one of the CHP employees who leaked the Catsouras photos said his client did so to warn friends and family about driving recklessly. "Any young person that sees these photos and is goaded into driving more cautiously or less recklessly—that's a public service," said Jon Schlueter in an interview with Newsweek.

Background: Rihanna case

In February, singers Chris Brown and Rihanna appeared at a pre-Grammy show together, but after a domestic dispute, neither made it to the ceremony itself. Rihanna was taken to an emergency room, and Brown turned himself in to the Los Angeles Police Department to face allegations of assault. Later, photographs of Rihanna taken by police after the attack found their way onto the Web site TMZ.

Opinion and Analysis: Supreme Court and privacy of deceased

Solove expanded on why he thinks the California court was in the wrong on the Concurring Opinions blog. He describes the constitutional right to information privacy that the Supreme Court outlined in the 1977 case, Whalen v. Roe. Most federal circuit courts have recognized that right, he said.

He believes the family's case meets the elements of the court's description of information privacy, which includes "protection if a person has a privacy interest, if government officials violated that interest by disclosing personal information." In addition, the interest in privacy can't be "outweighed by the government's interest in disclosure."

Solove cites a 2004 Freedom of Information Act case, National Archives and Records Admin. v. Favish, in which the Supreme Court said there was case law of family members having the right "to direct and control disposition of the body of the deceased and to limit attempts to exploit pictures of the deceased family member's remains for public purposes."

Related Topic: Photos and crime-solving on the Web

Technology has provided plenty of opportunities for poor judgment and photos to collide. Last year, 20-year-old college junior Joshua Lipton was photographed in a "jail bird" costume at a Halloween party only two weeks after a car accident in which he caused a woman serious injury while driving drunk. The photos were posted to a Facebook account, and used by the prosecution to show a lack of remorse on Lipton's behalf. The judge agreed and sentenced Lipton to two years in prison.

Last January, three 14 and 15-year-old female high school students from Greensburg, Pa., who took and sent nude or semi-nude photographs of themselves to male students, faced serious charges: manufacturing, disseminating or possessing child pornography. The male students, aged 16 and 17, were not immune from punishment for accepting the photos, facing charges of possession of child pornography.

Reference: Guide to Internet Marketing and Privacy


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