Should it be a crime to take pictures of accident scenes?

After the crash of a helicopter carrying Kobe Bryant and several other people last year, a bit of a scandal erupted when it was determined that one of the sheriffs responding to the scene had taken photographs of the wreckage and the bodies of the victims. Those photos leaked out into the public over social media, causing distress to the families of some of the victims. But while certainly a tasteless thing to do, it wasn’t technically illegal so there wasn’t much to be done about it. That will change in the near future if a new bill introduced in the California Assembly makes it into law, however. The bill’s sponsors are seeking to criminalize the taking or sharing of photographs of crime scenes or accident scenes by first responders. (CBS Los Angeles)

A bill that would make it a misdemeanor for first responders to share accident and crime scene photos in the wake of the Kobe Bryant helicopter crash has passed through its first policy committee and is expected to get support Wednesday from Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva.
AB-2655 was introduced earlier this month by Assemblyman Mike A. Gipson, D-Carson, after eight Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies had been confirmed to be involved in taking or sharing photos of the helicopter crash site where the Lakers star, his 13-year-old daughter Gigi and seven others died…

The photos that were shared were reportedly of the crash site and victims’ remains, and had been shared by a deputy trainee trying to impress a woman at a bar a few days after the crash.

Anyone found committing this “crime” could be in line for a maximum punishment of one year in jail and a $5,000 fine.

While it’s unsurprising to see California trying to criminalize virtually anything other than illegal immigration, this bill seems to have a number of problems. As I mentioned at the top, it’s obviously distasteful to photograph a tragedy (and particularly the remains of the recently deceased), but should it be illegal? Assuming the accident takes place out in public as most of them do, rather than on private property, people are generally free to take all the pictures they want. And unless you’re trying to profit from someone else’s image without their consent, you generally aren’t going to get into trouble for it.

This bill doesn’t apply to everyone, though. It’s specifically targeting first responders, including law enforcement officers, firemen and paramedics. That’s an awfully specific law, isn’t it? And even if you can single out first responders for punishment but not the general public (which is questionable to begin with), doesn’t that just massively dilute the intended purpose of the legislation? If two cars wind up in a head-on collision, the police and ambulance workers responding to the scene would be forbidden from taking pictures, but everyone else rubbernecking as they pass by could whip out their phones and live stream all the action on Twitter.

Even if such a law were restricted to only crime scenes instead of including accidents it would still be on shaky ground. When police respond to some perceived emergency situation, they frequently won’t know for a while whether it’s actually a crime scene or just an unfortunate accident. It’s understandable why the police wouldn’t want crime scene photos making the rounds in the early stages of an investigation, but it seems as if most first responders would already understand this and restrain themselves.

In order for this action to be limited to first responders, it seems to me that it would be better enacted as departmental policy in the first response units. They could provide for their own disciplinary measures for those found to be violating the rules. Making this a state law seems like an effort that’s doomed to fail if anyone challenges it.