Los Angeles Times v. Housley
Defending the privacy interests of surviving relatives and arguing that autopsy reports from the 2018 mass shooting at Borderline Bar & Grill are exempt from the California Public Records Act.
Case Information: Los Angeles Times Communications LLC, The Associated Press, and Scripps NP Operating, LLC, Publisher Of The Ventura County Star, v. Arik Housley, No. B322230 (California Court of Appeals, Second Appellate District, brief filed November 30, 2022)
At Issue: Media companies reporting on the 2018 mass shooting at the Borderline Bar & Grill sued to compel disclosure under the California Public Records Act (CPRA) of the autopsy reports of the gunman’s 11 victims. Surviving relatives filed a reverse CPRA action seeking to permanently enjoin the release of the autopsy reports. The trial court consolidated both cases and granted a preliminary injunction temporarily preventing disclosure. On first appeal, the Court held that the trial court had erred by weighing proposed legislation without considering the likely outcome under existing law but declined to reverse the preliminary injunction, instead remanding the case with instructions for reconsideration. On remand, the trial court denied the preliminary injunction. The families appealed.
Our Brief: We support a preliminary injunction, arguing that the victims’ autopsy reports are covered by an exemption to the California Public Records Act (CPRA) and otherwise fall outside the general public interest in disclosure because they are uniquely sensitive with minimal corresponding public value. Their release would violate the privacy interests of family members while doing little to increase government transparency beyond extensive information that has already been released.
We argue that the records fall under individual exemptions for investigatory records and unwarranted invasions of privacy. We also argue that CPRA’s “catch all” exemption applies because the public interest in withholding the record outweighs the public interest in releasing it.
Here, nondisclosure would serve two predominant public interests: ensuring that government institutions effectuate a longstanding cultural tradition of protecting familial control over a decedent’s body and images, and deterring potential copycat attacks. However, disclosure would not sufficiently serve any public interest and would fail even the threshold inquiry of whether the records sought “pertain to the conduct of the people’s business.”
In light of the exemptions protecting disclosure of the victims’ autopsy reports, the harm that would be caused by their release, and the likelihood that appellants will ultimately prevail on the merits of their case under existing law, we argue that the Court should reverse the trial court’s denial of preliminary injunction.
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