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Media groups oppose bill requiring police to seek consent before identifying child homicide victims

SHARE Media groups oppose bill requiring police to seek consent before identifying child homicide victims

Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Herriman, is running a bill that would require police to make a “reasonable effort” to get consent from a minor’s parents or guardian before identifying them as a victim of a homicide.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

A new bill that would require police to seek parental consent before identifying minor victims of homicide is drawing pushback from media groups, who argue it complicates Utah's open records laws.

Rep. Candice Pierucci, R-Herriman, said her bill, HB511, came after two teenagers were shot and killed near Hunter High School last January.

"I got a call that night from a friend who advocates for victims and their families, and she said that that family was notified that their son was the victim over a media report," Pierucci told House colleagues Monday. "They found out that their son had died by a notification on their phone, (police) sharing his name without them ever having a conversation."

HB511 would prevent similar issues in the future, Pierucci said. The bill prohibits law enforcement agencies from disclosing the name or personally-identifying information of a minor homicide victim until they make "a reasonable effort to obtain the consent of the minor victim's parent or legal guardian for the disclosure."

The bill specifies that police do not need to seek consent if the parent or legal guardian is "a suspect or defendant with respect to the criminal homicide."

HB511 passed the House Monday but Utah's media organizations have argued the bill would decrease transparency.

"These are tragic situations," said Jeff Hunt, attorney for the Utah Media Coalition, which represents Utah's print and broadcast media. "Of course police should be the ones who notify the parents that their loved one has died in a homicide. If law enforcement is not properly communicating with families, then the focus should be on fixing that problem, not taking this information out of Utah's open records law."

Hunt points out there are already multiple exceptions in Utah's Government Records Access and Management Act that protect sensitive information from disclosure in cases, to protect personal privacy interests or where disclosure would jeopardize the life or safety of an individual or interfere with an ongoing investigation.

The Utah Media Coalition issued a "Lights Out" GRAMA Watch notice for the bill.

"This bill seeks to restrict the release of names of minor victims of homicide, which would unnecessarily complicate information management for police and the public in an already painful and confusing situation," the notice states. "(GRAMA) provides multiple exceptions that protect the names of minor victims, including homicide victims, for the protection of life and safety, privacy and ongoing investigations."

"Creating a separate exception outside of GRAMA ties the hands of law enforcement, which may have valid public safety reason to release the name of a homicide victim, and would restrict sharing information in situations where there is a compelling public interest in identifying a minor who has been killed," the statement continued. "For creating needless obstacles for both police and the public, HB511 gets a LIGHTS OUT from GRAMA watch."

"If a child is murdered in Utah, why would the Utah Legislature not want the public to know who the child was? Why would they not want the public to be able to see his or her face?" said KSL.com News Director Brian West. "Not only is that unfair to the murdered child — whose life was important and their story deserves to be told — it would also benefit the person who killed the child because it minimizes their crime and devalues the life of the child."

Pierucci maintained that the bill simply codifies what already exists in policy for many law enforcement agencies, and said the bill would make that policy "standard across the board."

"No parent should have to endure the tragedy of losing a child, but they certainly should not have to have the media nightmare of finding out that their child was the one who was killed through a media report," she said. "And you hear the family's story and the trauma they have from this experience. It's unbearable for them."

During a Senate Revenue and Tax Committee hearing Tuesday, Brandon Merrill of Utah Homicide Survivors also spoke in favor of the bill.

"I cannot tell you how many times I've had families of these homicide victims come to me and tell me they found out that their loved one was killed through a media report," Merrill said.

HB511 passed the committee unanimously, after clearing the House on Monday. It now heads to the Senate for a final vote.