DUI Incidences and Media Reporting
Q: I would like to know if DUI arrest complaints, that would cause harm to the DUI alleged offender (financial, career, personal, threat of personal harm (because of statements they made during an arrest while intoxicated) can legally be published by the media. I would like to know if the publication of the records resulted in revelations of alcoholism, and or other personal problems that would result in financial, personal, or physical threat harm to the DUI arrestee would result in liability if published by and against a media entity. I would like to know if the same or more severe circumstances apply if the media entity received the records illegally, and or if they received those records legally if the media entity would be held criminally, and or civilly liable. I would also like to know if the release of the DUI arrest records was knowingly part of a “character assassination” scheme if the known dissemination of the DUI records would result in civil and or criminal liability for the individual and or a media outlet who released the records. Thanks, I am doing personal research and would appreciate any and all information that you can summarize. I have reviewed many laws, statutes, case law, etc., and would like your opinion based on the questions asked.
A: Under California Civil Code section 47(d), the media have an absolute right to republish the contents of police and court records, such as those concerning DUI arrests and complaints. That means the media cannot be sued for accurately republishing any information contained in those records. This is true even if the police or DA’s allegations in the arrest records or complaint are mistaken. As long as the media accurately republish information contained in those records, they cannot be sued.
The same result would probably be compelled by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, even if Civil Code section 47(d) did not exist. In Dorsey v. National Enquirer, for example, a federal court threw out a lawsuit against the National Enquirer for republishing the contents of an affidavit that had said that Dorsey was HIV positive, even those the affidavit was mistaken, on the ground that both the First Amendment and Civil Code section 47(d) protect the media from being sued for accurately reporting the contents of court records, even court records that were supposed to be confidential.
In a case called Nicholson v. McClatchy, the California Court of Appeal also held that a newspaper could not be sued for republishing the contents of a government record that was supposed to be kept confidential (the evaluation of a potential judge) because the media have a right under the First Amendment to ask questions of those who have a duty to keep certain information confidential and, if a person gives the media that information even if s/he was supposed to, the media cannot be held liable for obtaining or publishing it. This result was dictated, the California Court of Appeal said, by prior decisions of the US Supreme Court, which held that the media cannot be held liable for publishing that a woman was the victim of a sexual assault even though state law required that such information be kept confidential.