Judge rules deputies who shared Kobe Bryant crash photos can be named

In a lawsuit, Vanessa Bryant claims deputies shared "unauthorized" photos of the fatal crash site


By Richard Winton
Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES COUNTY, Calif. — Vanessa Bryant can obtain the names of four Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies who her lawyers allege in a lawsuit shared "unauthorized" photos of the site of the helicopter crash that killed her husband, Kobe Bryant, their daughter and seven others, a federal judge ruled Monday.

U.S. District Judge John F. Walter rejected an effort by Los Angeles County lawyers to keep the deputies' names under seal in the lawsuit. They argued that releasing the names would make the deputies' addresses and other personal information only a click away on the internet and that hackers could target them. The ruling means Vanessa Bryant's lawyers can add the deputies' names and details from the internal affairs investigation about their conduct to an amended complaint in her civil rights lawsuit against the county and the Sheriff's Department led by Alex Villanueva.

In this Jan. 26, 2020, file photo, firefighters work the scene of a helicopter crash in Calabasas, Calif., that killed Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter and seven others.
In this Jan. 26, 2020, file photo, firefighters work the scene of a helicopter crash in Calabasas, Calif., that killed Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter and seven others. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File)

The judge wrote that " Sheriff Villanueva's promise to publicly release the [internal affairs bureau] report after the conclusion of the investigation undermines Defendants' purported concern in the disclosure of the limited excerpts at issue here." Local court rules give the county four days to appeal the ruling.

Walter noted there is "a strong presumption of access as a starting point" and the county failed to show compelling reasons to do otherwise. Bryant's lawyers blacked out the deputies' names in their filing, pending the court's decision on whether the complaint should be sealed.

Vanessa Bryant attorney Luis Li said "transparency promotes accountability. We look forward to presenting Mrs. Bryant's case in open court."

In the ruling, Walter found that allegations of police officer misconduct should not be hidden from the public eye. "Indeed where the case involves allegations of police misconduct, the public has a vested interest in assessing the truthfulness of the allegations of official misconduct, and whether agencies that are responsible for investigating and adjudicating complaints of misconduct have acted properly and wisely," he wrote.

He gave a detailed rejection of the county arguments. "Although the Court recognizes that this case has been the subject of public scrutiny and media attention and that the Deputy Defendants are legitimately concerned that they will encounter vitriol and social media attacks, such concerns, by themselves, are not sufficient to outweigh the public's strong interest in access."

The judge noted that an argument by the county that by identifying the deputies they could be targeted by hackers seeking the photos of the tragic scene made no sense. "Moreover, Defendants' concern that hackers may attempt to seek out and gain access to the individual deputies' devices to locate any photographs and publish them is totally inconsistent with their position that such photographs no longer exist."

The lawsuit seeks damages for negligence and invasion of privacy, alleging deputies and firefighters took and shared photos of the children, parents and coaches who died in the Jan. 26, 2020, crash. The amended complaint filed last month provided new details of their alleged behavior in sharing photos of the remains at the Calabasas crash site.

[READ: New Calif. law prompted by Kobe Bryant crash photos]

Bryant lawyers noted that the case cited as precedent by the county in its effort to hide the identities involves sexual harassment victims. "Defendants try to equate the Deputy Defendants who shared photos of Kobe and Gianna Bryant's remains with victims of sexual harassment and other abuse," attorney Luis Li wrote in court papers.

The suit alleges a Sheriff's Department internal affairs report found that one deputy took 25 to 100 photos at the scene and that photos spread quickly by text and phone-sharing technology over the next 48 hours among deputies who showed them to others. The county has claimed that all the photos have been deleted.

Judge Walter found that Vanessa Bryant's legal team also can quote from an internal affairs report turned over to them by the county. Walter wrote "contrary to Defendants' assertions otherwise, courts have recognized that victims, witnesses, and other officers may be more likely to participate in investigations or discipline proceedings if they believe their reports of misconduct will be thoroughly and fairly investigated."

The suit alleges that several deputies shared images from the crash site, as did several county firefighters who were witnessed snapping images on personal phones. The suit notes that a Los Angeles County fire captain, who was a spokesman, has said that he received photos from multiple firefighters at the scene.

Bryant's lawyers detailed how some of the deputies got the photographs. The court filings accuse only one deputy of taking photos. It is unclear from the litigation whether it was his images that were repeatedly shared by others.

A Los Angeles Times investigation in 2020 found that deputies had shared photos of the crash site.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

(c)2021 the Los Angeles Times

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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