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    Update on Catsouras v. California Highway Patrol, Concerning Privacy After Death

    In February, I discussed Catsouras v. California Highway Patrol, a lawsuit (pdf) against two California Highway Patrol officers “who allegedly leaked grisly photos of an 18-year-old Orange County woman’s death in a vehicle collision that circulated on the Internet, drawing taunts against her family,” according to the Metropolitan News-Enterprise. Now, Newsweek has an update.

    A year ago this month, we reported on the story of Nikki Catsouras, the 18-year-old Orange County, Calif., woman who was killed in a devastating car crash. The gory photos of her body and the crash scene were posted on the Web for the world to see, raising all sorts of questions about privacy online. In January, the Catsouras family, who had sued the California Highway Patrol, the agency responsible for the leak, for negligence and invasion of privacy, was handed an important legal victory when a California appeals court ruled, in a 64-page published opinion, that the highway patrol’s behavior—specifically, the actions of the two dispatchers found to have disseminated the photos—had been “morally deficient,” causing emotional distress to the family for the mere purpose of creating a “vulgar spectacle.”

    It was an important decision but, in an ongoing legal battle, the CHP appealed to the California Supreme Court, hoping it would hear the case. Finally, last Thursday, the Catsouras family got another bit of good news: the California Supreme Court denied the highway patrol’s appeal.

    Now, the California Highway Patrol can either appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, settle with the family out of court or go to a jury trial.

    With the law on their side, the next challenge for the family will be this: How can they stop the spread of the remaining photos, everpresent on the Web? Many of the bloggers who post such images are anonymous, and it’s nearly impossible from a practical perspecive to hold every Web-hosting company accountable for the speech of each individual user.

    The family hopes that the CHP will agree to give them ownership of the images, which would allow them go after anybody who was posting them without permission. “It’s going to be hard to get them off the Net,” says privacy-law expert Dan Solove, a professor at George Washington University. “But it’s not impossible.”

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