Monthly Archives: January 2005

California Supreme Court overturns a 33 year old privacy law decision, allows media to publicize facts from "stale" court files.

A California Supreme Court ruling on December 6, 2004 held overturned a 33 year old privacy law decision, holding that media may freely publicize facts from forgotten court cases.Steve Gates was convicted as an accessory after the fact in the 1988 murder of a car salesman in San Diego, California. After serving 17 months of his 3 year sentence, Gates was given credit for good behavior and released in 1995. Since then, he has resumed life as a law-abiding citizen.

In 2001 the Discovery Channel aired a documentaty about the story as part of its series “The Prosecutors”. The show reconstructed the crime, using Gates' name and photograph from the case records.

The broadcast was noticed by his neighbors and customers, resulting in loss of business and worse, the feeling that friends and acquaintances who knew nothing about his past except what the Discovery Channel told them no longer trusted him. So, Gates sued for invasion of privacy.

In the 1971, decision of Briscoe v. Readers Digest Association, The California Supreme Court concluded that a person convicted of a crime who paid his debt to society and returned to a quiet, law-abiding life, but who years later had his criminal past exposed without sufficient reason connected to current events of public interest, could sue the media organization who had “outed” him for invasion of privacy.

But four years later the U.S. Justices in Cox Broadcasting v. Cohn ruled that on no account could the media be held liable for publishing information lawfully acquired from court records, and in a series of cases since then has reaffirmed that position.

In Gates' case, The Court of Appeal cited Cox Broadcasting to conclude that as a matter of constitutional law, Briscoe was no longer valid, and Gates’s privacy case could not proceed.

The state Supreme Court today agreed, following Cox's holding that

“the States may not impose sanctions on the publication of truthful information contained in official court records open to public inspection” …The court was careful to say, however, that it reserved judgment for later on whether a privacy case could be brought for the disclosure of long-buried information about a person’s criminal involvement if the information was not sourced in court records but independently derived.

The court was careful in saying that it reserved judgment for later on whether a privacy case could be brought for the disclosure of long-buried information about a person’s criminal involvement if the information was independently uncovered and not sourced in court records..


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