A story for every victim

DMV stops releasing photos of dead people to media

California Department of Motor Vehicles officials have stopped releasing the photographs of dead people, changing a longstanding practice that allowed news organizations access to the images.

The decision, according to the DMV, was prompted by dozens of national and international requests for photos of the 14 victims of the San Bernardino terrorist attack in December.

“The DMV is also concerned for family members who must cope with the loss of someone they love, and wants to respect their privacy,” the department said in a statement.

In the case of the terrorism victims, photos of all the dead were quickly available from family and friends. But in many other cases, the DMV often was the most reliable source of a verifiable image.

The Los Angeles Times since has made at least three requests for photographs through the California Public Records Act that were denied by the department.

The denial is linked to a section of California’s Vehicle Code that prohibits the distribution of the photographs unless it is requested by the license or identification card holder.

The DMV also cited another section of the vehicle code that states that all records “relating to the physical … condition of any person … are confidential and not open to public inspection.”

“This prohibition applies to a photograph because it provides information relating to the physical condition of a licensee or identification card holder,” the DMV said in a denial letter.

In response, The Times has written a letter to the department requesting that the DMV reconsider its position.

In the letter, The Times argues that the DMV’s “new interpretation” of these statutes is incorrect.

The Times argued that the public has a “strong interest” in the release of the photographs to the media because it helps journalists verify the identity of a person and accurately report information.

For The Times’ Homicide Report database, DMV photos often are used to give a face to the name of the victims and to give the public a visual of who has died violently in the county.

Peter Scheer, the executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, said that it’s “a mistake” for the department to “do a 180” on its policy.

“I don’t see how anyone can say that there’s a privacy interest in these photographs,” he said.

Note: Since its start eight years ago, The Homicide Report has had the goal of a story for every victim. Now we are expanding that goal to include a photo for every victim. So far we've gathered 1,193 victims' photos, just 8.2% of those killed. Help us do better. If you have a photo of a homicide victim to share e-mail it to homicidereport@latimes.com.

Contact the Homicide Report. Follow @nicolesantacruz and @latimeshomicide on Twitter.

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