CALIFORNIA — In late September, California became the first state to prevent witnesses and jurors in criminal cases from selling their stories to the media until all legal proceedings are over.
The law, written by State Senator Quentin Kopp and Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, makes it illegal for witnesses and jurors in criminal proceedings to be paid by the media or anyone else for information pertaining to the case in which they are involved until the case is over. The law also expands the definition of the crime of jury tampering, usually limited to acts such as bribing a juror to influence his or her vote, to include paying or offering payment to a juror for information.
However, the law specifies that “information” does not include a photograph, videotape, audiotape or any other direct recording of an event or occurrence, and it allows jurors “lawful compensation” not exceeding $50, such as being taken to lunch or dinner. “Information” is defined in the law as personal knowledge which is obtained through witnessing an event.
The law provides that potential witnesses are subject to this law until one year has elapsed from the date of the alleged crime related to the information or until a final judgment is rendered in the court proceeding. For jurors, the prohibition stands until 90 days after the final judgment.
Violation of the statute is a misdemeanor for both witnesses and jurors, punishable by imprisonment for up to six months and/or a fine of no more than $1,000. Any financial compensation gained from the release of the information must be forfeited to the state’s Victim Restitution Fund.
Exemptions to the statute include compensation offered by government agencies to expert witnesses, investigators, informants or persons employed by the news media for disclosing information obtained in the normal course of business.
According to a letter Sen. Kopp sent to Governor Pete Wilson with the bill, the media frenzy of the O.J. Simpson trial and the possibility of compromising the credibility of potential witnesses with offers of money prompted Kopp to introduce the bill. Wilson signed the bill into law on September 26.
Tom Newton, general counsel of the California Newspaper Publishers Association in Sacramento, told the Media Law Reporter he expects the law to be found unconstitutional due to its overbroad, blanket prohibitions. Kopp’s office said they do “expect there will be litigation” concerning the validity of the law.
(Calif. Senate Bill 1999)
The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.