A Santa Ana-based California Court of Appeal reversed a lower court ruling that had allowed two California Highway Patrol (CHP) officers to avoid any legal responsibility for allegedly putting photographs of a decapitated Orange County teenager on the Internet.
Calling the actions of CHP officers Thomas O'Donnell and Aaron Reich "vulgar" and "morally deficient," the justices ruled that the family of 18-year-old Nicole Catsouras do have the right to sue for intentional infliction of emotional distress in the wake of distribution of the gruesome photographs of the October 31, 2006, automobile accident. The ruling was dated Friday but posted online today.
"The photographs were downloaded or otherwise transmitted to one or more CHP computers," the justices observed. "O'Donnell and Reich, without [the family's consent], e-mailed or otherwise transmitted graphic and horrific photographs of the decedent to members of the public who were not involved in the official investigation of the car crash. Thereafter, more than 2,500 Internet Web sites in the United States and United Kingdom posted the photographs. [The victim's family was] subjected to malicious taunting by persons making use of the graphic and horrific photographs."
According to the court, the family "suffered severe emotional and mental distress."
The ruling reverses the decision of Superior Court Judge Steven L. Perk, who had previously opined that Catsouras' family had no legal standing to sue the officers. The case now goes back to a lower court.
The justices made clear that they have little patience for the officer's stunt.
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"We rely upon the CHP to protect and serve the public," they wrote. "It is antithetical to that expectation for the CHP to inflict harm upon us by making the ravaged remains of our loved ones the subject of Internet sensationalism. . . . O'Donnell and Reich owed the plaintiff's a duty not to exploit CHP-acquired evidence in such a manner as to place them at foreseeable risk of grave emotional distress."
Lame CHP representatives argued that the officer's distribution of the images wasn't a big deal because "anyone driving by the scene of the accident could have taken a photograph of the decedent's remains and distributed it."
This isn't the first time that CHP officers in Orange County have soiled their own reputations. In recent years, Robert Steven Deck, a high-ranking CHP commander, was arrested and convicted for attempting to have sex with a 12-year-old girl and a second local officer, Joshua Wendall Blackburn, was arrested and convicted for stealing cocaine from a department evidence locker.
--R. Scott Moxley / OC Weekly