RTDNA urges California DMV to revisit license photo policy

January 26, 2016 01:30

In the wake of the mass shooting in San Bernardino, the California Department of Motor Vehicles abruptly changed its long-standing policy on releasing the driver license photos of deceased people to the news media. A DMV spokesman told Los Angeles station KTLA-TV that photos would now be considered private data as outlined by state statute.

In the past, the DMV said it made the images available to the media "as a public service," adding the agency wanted to ensure journalists received the right photo.

Lynn Walsh, President-Elect of the Society of Professional Journalists, investigative executive producer for San Diego's KNSD-TV, and frequent contributor to RTDNA.org said, "While I can understand the need to protect an individual's privacy, when someone has their photo taken by the DMV for use on their California driver's license, the photo becomes a public record," she said. "Records like that belong to the public and should be released. Not allowing the public access to them would be a step in the opposite direction of transparency."

In a letter to the California DMV, RTDNA urges the agency to reconsider the policy change, saying "...the alternatives to the use of DMV photos could create even more privacy issues and, potentially, do more harm to the very individuals you’re seeking to protect."

The full letter is below:

January 26, 2016
Director Jean Shiomoto
California Department of Motor Vehicles
Dear Director Shiomoto:
On behalf of the Radio Television Digital News Association, the nation’s largest professional association of electronic journalists, with members in California and throughout the nation, I am writing to ask you to reconsider the Department’s new policy related to the non-release of driver’s license photographs.
Allowing media access to the driver’s license photos of deceased persons has long been an aid to news outlets in their reporting of stories related to these individuals.  We understand your new interpretation of the California Vehicle Code enables you to institute this prohibition, but we do not believe this decision is ultimately in the best interests of the public.  We, as do our members, share your concerns about privacy in the wake of the tragic San Bernardino terror attack.  But we also believe the alternatives to the use of DMV photos could create even more privacy issues and, potentially, do more harm to the very individuals you’re seeking to protect.
Without access to DMV photos, journalists will find themselves in need of pursuing other ways to obtain these pictures, including directly asking family members for them.  RTDNA does not believe such an alternative is preferable to obtaining the photos from a third-party source, like the DMV.
RTDNA asks you to reexamine your new policy and carefully weigh both its direct and indirect effects on the news media and, even more importantly, the public’s right to have full and complete information in news stories related to these individuals.
We thank you, in advance, for your review of this policy change.

Mike Cavender
Executive Director, RTDNA