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U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments on release and sale of police records

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    NMU         U.S. SUPREME COURT         Freedom of Information         Oct 14, 1999    

U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments on release and sale of police records

  • The Supreme Court will consider whether a private company has a right of access to names and addresses contained in police arrest records.

A California law that prohibits the release of addresses of arrested persons for any commercial use is not an unconstitutional restriction on free speech — if it is a restriction on free speech at all, rather than a restriction on the right to access public records — the Los Angeles Police Department’s attorney Thomas C. Goldstein argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in mid-October.

A 1994 California law bars the release of addresses of arrested persons for commercial, but not other, uses. The law has been challenged by United Reporting Publishing Corp., a private publishing service in Rancho Cordova, Calif., that publishes a newsletter that includes names and addresses of arrested persons for attorneys, insurance companies, drug and alcohol counselors, driving schools, and other customers.

The LAPD argued before the Court that the “heartland” of the law is a person who simply wants to use the addresses for commercial purposes. There is a difference between providing the addresses to journalists and providing the addresses to a person who uses them for solely commercial purposes, the department argued. The LAPD also voiced concern about “massive wholesale invasion of privacy” as a result of using these addresses for commercial purposes.

United Reporting argued that the law discriminates between speakers, and all if its reporting is fully protected speech. A crucial fact regarding the invasion of privacy concern, it argued, is that the identity of the individual arrested can be disclosed to everyone.

The Court posed several questions regarding whether this case is primarily about the right to access, or a restriction of free speech, or both. The U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco (9th Cir.) had decided that the law was an unconstitutional restrict ion on commercial speech. Justice John Paul Stevens asked the LAPD how prior U.S. Supreme Court decisions regarding commercial speech would apply.

Justice Antonin Scalia found it difficult to view this case as an access case and not a speech case. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg suggested if one does not make the assumption that everyone is entitled to access, then the case is a much tougher one.

United Reporting argued that although the press does not necessarily have a right to access, once you “open the door” to some, then the press must have equal access.

Justice David H. Souter asked whether there is another way to get this information. “As a practical matter, this is a prohibition on a form of commercial speech,” he stated.

Justice Stephen Breyer, on the other hand, commented on the invasion of privacy issue raised by the LAPD and said, “We speak of privacy, but what we are really speaking of is annoyance and harassment.”

United Reporting sued law enforcement agencies including the Los Angeles Police Department in federal District Court in San Diego to enjoin enforcement of the act in 1994 when it passed, and then again in 1996 when it became effective. That court ruled fo r United Reporting in November 1996.

On appeal, a unanimous panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco (9th Cir.) in late June 1999 upheld the District Court’s decision.

(LAPD v. United Reporting Publishing Corp.; Counsel for United Reporting: Guylyn R. Cummins, San Diego; argued by Bruce Ennis, Washington, D.C.)

© 1999 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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