AELEAELE: Beware the legal risks of spreading gory scene photos

You wouldn’t do it, but let’s say an officer of your acquaintance uses his personal cellphone camera to record the gore of a fatal traffic smashup and emails the bloody photos to some buddies and from there they eventually get posted forever on the internet. Any legal problems with that?

It’s a good question, given the growing profusion of electronic recording devices–and their occasional irresponsible use–among LEOs. A new report by Americans for Effective Law Enforcement, the leading source of legal information and training for officers and their agencies, provides the cautionary answer.

You can read AELE’s full documentation of the issue free of charge at http://www.aele.org/law/2012all02/2012-02MLJ501.pdf. The article highlights, among other things, officers’ liability for privacy violations under such circumstances, administrators’ obligation to prevent unauthorized file sharing, and questions about whether officers should be allowed to wear personally owned mini-cams.

Particular attention is focused on a precedent-setting civil suit brought by survivors of an 18-year-old female who was decapitated when her car crashed into a West Coast tollbooth at 100 mph. She was so gruesomely mangled that the coroner wouldn’t permit her parents to see her body.

“For pure shock value,” 2 officers emailed 9 “grotesque images” from the scene to friends and family members as a Halloween prank, The photos were passed around and ultimately spread across the internet “like a malignant firestorm, popping up in thousands of websites,” such as www.bestgore.com.

An appellate court panel ruled that officers involved could be sued by family members for inflicting “extreme emotional distress” by violating the “common law privacy right in the death images of a decedent.” AELE notes, “Liability can attach even if [disturbing] photographs or videos are viewed only by curious coworkers.” Links are provided in the article to various pertinent cases.

The report also discusses wearable video cameras and provides reasons pro and con for departments permitting such devices that are personally owned vs. those that are department-issued.

Potential language for policies pertaining to mini-cams and audio-recording devices, both personal and professional, is also discussed.

In addition to its access through AELE, the article will also appear in the Law Enforcement Executive Forum for March, 2012, and in the IACP Net database.

Note: Visit the AELE.org website to register for free monthly email journals on law enforcement and corrections legal issues and for detailed information on the organization’s popular training seminars.

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