Members of the House Judiciary Committee voted in favor of a bill that would block images of dead bodies that are part of law enforcement agency investigation from public disclosure.
The bill, Senate Bill 508, was carried Wednesday afternoon by the committee’s vice-chair, Rep. Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland, and passed easily, with no member voting against it. The bill awaits a vote from the full House before it can be sent to the governor’s desk. On May 1, the bill was approved by the full Senate.
Before Wednesday’s vote, the House committee held a public hearing. During the hearing, Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin, who was instrumental in the bill’s creation, again urged Oregon’s lawmakers to support the bill.
“As we prepare to respond to hundreds of ‘public information requests’ involving the (Umpqua Community College) tragedy, I become increasingly concerned about the privacy of the victims and their families,” Hanlin wrote.
In meeting with family members of all of the shooting’s victims since the tragedy, Hanlin wrote that “they all shared their anxiety and concerns about the information that could be potentially shared through the public information request process once the UCC shooting investigation is declared closed.”
If the images related to the shooting are made public — or any images of dead bodies or the body parts of deceased victims — Hanlin wrote “there is undoubtedly SOMEONE out there who will, with no regard to what’s in the public’s best interest, display those images on social media... if nowhere else.”
The political director of the Oregon Trial Lawyers Association, Arthur Towers, also gave public testimony Wednesday afternoon, asking the committee to make a small change to the language of the bill.
Towers suggested that images should be made available upon request to the “survivor or their legal representatives,” because the images may be “vital in proving liability or negligence.”
The bill was originally written to exclude all images “related to” a death from being released. The language was made more specific by the Senate Judiciary Committee, which edited the exemption to only address “images of a dead body, or parts of a dead body” that relate to a law enforcement agency’s investigation.
As written, the bill states images would remain secret if public disclosure would create an “unreasonable invasion of privacy of the family of the deceased person.” On Wednesday, Rep. Jeff Barker, D-Aloha, proposed an amendment to the bill, suggesting that the images should be withheld if disclosure would “create an extraordinary transgression of the bounds of socially tolerable conduct.” Barker’s amendment was not voted on.
Months after the UCC shooting, Hanlin approached Oregon senators Jeff Kruse and Floyd Prozanski about the possibility of the bill, urging the lawmakers to pass legislation. Kruse said he liked the idea, but the initial attempt didn’t make much progress during a short session.
Hanlin maintains that the public release of gruesome photos would never be appropriate and that any publication of the photos would be a “form of sensationalism that is immoral, unethical and harmful.”