This post originally appeared in Obiter Dicta. Photo by José Martín Ramírez Carrasco on Unsplash.
On Monday, September 28, the Governor of California, Gavin Newsom, approved the Kobe Bryant Act. This invasion of privacy bill moved to make it a criminal office for any emergency responders to take or share unauthorized photos of deceased persons at the scene of an accident.
This issue first arose earlier in 2020, following the sudden passing of basketball superstar Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and multiple others. The victims were killed in a tragic single helicopter crash on January 26, 2020. Just minutes after the incident, photos of the victims and the crash scene were shared by multiple deputies. These images quickly spread across social media, and basketball fans from around the world were in disbelief. The leaked news had spread so fast that TMZ reported on the crash and the passing of Kobe Bryant before an official statement was released by the LA County Sheriff Department confirming the accident and the victims’ identities.
Vanessa Bryant, the widow of the late Kobe Bryant, sued the Sheriff Department for leaking graphic images and footage from the accident that took the lives of her husband and daughter. After a preliminary investigation into the matter, it was found that the department had a policy prohibiting the sharing of photos taken at a crime scene; however, this rule did not extend to accidents. Nonetheless, the conduct of the deputies in this circumstance was absolutely unprofessional and unethical, and thus the bill was passed without resistance.
The primary objective of this bill is to address a serious concern of invasion of privacy during the investigation of an accident. While it is necessary for first responders to properly document the scene for investigative purposes, it is reasonably expected by the victim and their family that their privacy is safeguarded during this procedure. Footage that discloses the identity of a victim or the nature of an accident is highly sensitive information, especially in a circumstance where the photo graphically depicts the deceased. The bill criminalizes first responders who “capture the photographic image[s] of a deceased person for any purpose other than an official law enforcement purpose or a genuine public interest” (Assembly Bill No. 2655 CHAPTER 219). This bill protects families from the non-consensual distribution of inappropriate photographic materials of victims, while also ensuring that the tragic news is delivered directly to families by officials instead of social media. Here, we see not only a legal justification of this addition to the California Penal Code, but also its social policy function.
The Kobe Bryant Act will take effect on January 1, 2021. Following this date, any agency that employs first responders is responsible for informing its employees about the new regulations. This act officially criminalizes the taking and sharing photos of deceased persons at the scene of an accident. Any first responder who commits this misdemeanour offence will be subject to fines of up to $1,000 per violation. The details of the Kobe Bryant Act can be found in section 647.9 of the California Penal Code.
Written by Adele Zhang, a first-year student at Osgoode Hall Law School with an interest in sports and entertainment law, business law, IP law, and employment law. In addition to her studies, Adele acts as a 1L Representative for the Entertainment and Sports Law Association.