LOS ANGELES - Acting on legislation that grew out of the Kobe Bryant helicopter crash, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law this week a bill that makes it a crime for peace officers and other first responders to take unauthorized photos of dead people at the scene of a crime or accident.
The invasion of privacy measure was prompted by a Los Angeles Times investigation early this year that found that Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies shared gruesome photos of the Bryant crash site in Calabasas.
After receiving a citizen's complaint about the matter, Sheriff Alex Villanueva initially sought to cover up the deputies' behavior by quietly ordering the photos deleted. Villanueva ordered an investigation into their conduct only after the Times disclosed that deputies were showing the photos, including to a civilian at a bar in Norwalk.
The Sheriff's Department has declined to discuss the status of the investigation, citing "pending litigation." Villanueva said in May that the inquiry was "getting near its conclusion and once we have it completed, we will be releasing it publicly."
The new law, which was signed Monday and takes effect Jan. 1, makes it a misdemeanor to take photos that are not part of an official investigation. Violations carry a fine of up to $1,000.
In the midst of the scandal over the photos, the Sheriff's Department sponsored the legislation that created the law. The bill was introduced by Democratic Assemblyman Mike Gipson of Carson.
The Jan. 26 crash killed Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others. The Sikorsky S-76B helicopter slammed into a hillside in heavy fog on a morning flight from Orange County to a youth basketball tournament in Thousand Oaks.
The widow of the Lakers legend, Vanessa Bryant, has filed a lawsuit against the Sheriff's Department over the photos, seeking damages for negligence, invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Her attorney has called the deputies' actions "inexcusable and deplorable."
A young deputy showed the photos to a bartender at the Baja California Bar & Grill in Norwalk, a witness to the episode, Ralph Mendez, told the Times. Mendez said he filed a complaint with the department after returning home from the bar, shortly after midnight Jan. 29.
He said Tuesday that a sheriff's Internal Affairs Bureau investigator interviewed him in March, but he hasn't heard from the department since.
Current law generally prohibits reproduction of photos taken by a coroner of a body at a crime or accident scene, but there is no ban on unauthorized photos taken by law enforcement officers, firefighters, coroner officials, ambulance crews and other first responders, state officials said.
For nearly five weeks after the crash, the leadership of the Sheriff's Department tried to keep a lid on the photo sharing instead of following the normal investigative protocols - even after determining that several more deputies had obtained the images, according to interviews. Villanueva told broadcast outlets that eight deputies were involved, but he did not identify them.
The efforts to avoid public disclosure of the deputies' actions began in earnest with the order from Villanueva to have the photos deleted, a move that some inside the department as well as legal experts said could amount to destruction of evidence. Villanueva has said he issued the order to ensure the photos wouldn't be circulated further.
(Times staff writer Patrick McGreevy contributed to this report.)
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