SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Frank Griffin, co-founder of one of Hollywood’s leading star-gazing photo agencies, wonders what the market could have yielded if someone had taken a picture of Paris Hilton curled up in her jail cell.
The thought of it can make the paparazzo’s heart flutter.
“If she’s lying in jail with a well-thumbed paperback copy of `I Love Jesus,’ it’s probably worth $200,000,” muses Griffin, a 56-year-old Brit who heads the Bauer-Griffin agency in Los Angeles.
But the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department and state Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, D-San Monica, aren’t amused by such speculation. They are taking action to ensure that a growing market for scandalous photos or videos of celebrities don’t become a corrupting lure for law enforcement personnel.
At the behest of Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, Brownley is sponsoring legislation - Assembly Bill 920 - to make it a crime for any deputy, police officer, jail attendant or other criminal justice employee to sell photos or videos taken in secure areas of jails or courthouses.
“Anybody who wants to take a picture of Mel Gibson driving down the street in his car is free to do so,” Brownley said. “What this bill addresses - and would make a misdemeanor - is to sell or solicit for financial gain a photo taken inside a secure area” of a law enforcement facility.
The bill would also prohibit law enforcement personnel from selling police reports that aren’t authorized for release or accepting payment for leaking evidence in criminal investigations that isn’t in public records.
The legislation wouldn’t outlaw the leaks themselves - only the profit. Violators could face fines of $1,000 per offense.
The bill was in the works before Hilton, the hotel heiress and party-girl media darling, was sent to jail in June for violating probation on an alcohol-related reckless driving case. Passed by the Assembly in May, it is now in the state Senate.
The attention it is suddenly stirring reflects fears in law enforcement circles that have only increased since the media frenzy of the Hilton case. Earlier, the issue arose following the sensational 2006 arrest of Gibson - when a police report detailing the actor’s anti-Semitic rant during a drunken driving stop was leaked to an Internet gossip site, TMZ.com.
“We had O.J. Simpson in custody for many months (in 1994-95) and no one ever tried to solicit our officers for O.J. But times are different now,” said Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Sgt. Wayne Bilowit. “We are just trying to stay ahead of the curve. We don’t think that law enforcement or people who staff the jails or the courts should be the paparazzi.”
Bilowit says he doesn’t know of any incidents of sheriff’s personnel accepting payment - or even receiving offers of cash - for spilling the goods, or pictures, on celebrities in custody.
Yet in a letter to Brownley, Baca said he was worried about “the age of instant information and Internet sites such as `The Smoking Gun,’ `YouTube,’ `TMZ’ or other non-traditional media outlets.” He said competition from the new generation of tabloid media might stir pressures “to gain inside information ... by paying a peace officer.”
Worries of unseemly demands for celebrity scoops were also heightened by the federal racketeering indictment of Hollywood private eye Anthony Pellicano. The case included allegations that Pellicano, legendary investigator - and protector - to the stars, was paying a Los Angeles Police Department detective for information on celebrity clients.
But Brownley’s bill is drawing criticism from the mainstream California Newspaper Publishers Association.
Traditional media outlets have policies against paying for information or leaked materials. Yet CNPA general counsel Thomas Newton said the organization is “fighting the fight for the least among us” - the tabloid and Internet gossip media - because it fears a potential restriction on freedom of speech.
“The bigger picture is that this bill would further a policy the courts have struck down - the idea that you can restrict speech because somebody is getting paid for that speech,” Newton said.
In a letter to Brownley, Newton also complains that the bill is written too broadly. He says it could prevent a police chief from writing a paid column or “punish an aspiring author and peace officer ... for selling a short story to a magazine about his experiences fighting crime.”
But Brownley said her bill is aimed at profiteering though unauthorized distribution and selling of photos, videos or evidence - not at anyone’s ability to publish.
“We worked hard on this bill to make sure that no First Amendment rights were impacted in any shape or form,” she said.
Bilowit said the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department has internal procedures that could subject an employee to discipline, including firing, for selling photos and information not authorized for release. But he said having a criminal penalty would give authorities an increased ability to investigate misconduct.
He said the bill wouldn’t stop any deputy “who wanted to write a book on `my time as Paris Hilton’s jailer’ or `Mel’s jailer’ or `O.J.‘s jailer.’”
But he added: “We don’t want a crime scene where a police officer is going to whip out his cell phone” to video or photograph “and sell it to the media. And what if someone makes a taped confession of a crime and all of a sudden it’s on YouTube? Not such a good idea.”
Bilowit said employees are prohibited from having camera and video cell phones in Los Angeles County jail facilities. Many police agencies do release jail booking photos to the media, including of actress Lindsay Lohan after her recent arrest on suspicion of driving under the influence.
Despite his musings about the treasured prize of an exclusive, candid photo of a celebrity in the jailhouse, Griffin doesn’t think the authorities are up to the task of getting it.
“I think there is absolute panic that people are going to go around like gunslingers whipping out their cell phones,” Griffin said. “But you still have to be a photographer. I guarantee you could give a camera to 25 cops and none of them could come up with the picture.”