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The arrest of singer Chris Brown– a double-Grammy nominee and a scheduled performer at the Grammy Awards show on February 8, 2009– that took place just moments before the start of the show created an instant media frenzy. Brown was booked on suspicion of making a criminal threat– a felony– for allegedly assaulting an “unidentified” woman. The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), which is investigating the incident, did not release the identity of the victim, citing state laws that protect the identity of assault victims. However, suspicions immediately centered on Brown’s girlfriend, pop star Rihanna, when she canceled her own scheduled Grammy appearance at the last minute.
The media appetite for information was soon satisfied when the website TMZ released a photo appearing to be of Rihanna– with visible injuries– under the heading, “Rihanna– The Face of a Battered Woman.” Given that a fake photo of Rihanna with a black eye had previously circulated the Internet after Brown’s arrest, the authenticity of the photo was questioned by some. However, just hours after the appearance of the photo, the LAPD essentially authenticated it, issuing a statement that it was investigating a potential photo leak. The LAPD stated that it is “reasonable to believe” that the TMZ photo was taken by one of their officers in connection with a domestic violence investigation.
The LAPD has expressed “embarrassment” at the release of the photo, insisting that it takes seriously its duty to protect the identity of victims of domestic violence. The department is currently conducting an internal investigation into the incident and has stated that this type of violation could include penalties “up to and including termination.” The department is also conducting a criminal conspiracy investigation, which could result in up to three years in prison for the individuals involved.
In the age of celebrity gossip websites, the LAPD and Los Angeles County have stuggled to keep investigations involving celebrities confidential. The 2006 release of a sheriff’s department arrest report detailing Mel Gibson’s antisemitic rants resulted in the passage of legislation, popularly known as “Mel’s Law,” that makes it a misdemeanor for law enforcement officers to profit from the leak of confidential reports or images. In pushing for the law, Assemblywoman Julia Brownley and Sheriff Lee Baca pointed out that the release of such information could compromise the ability of law enforcement to make a case against a suspect. There is also the risk that the photo could create unfair prejudice against Brown, who has not yet been charged in the incident. Finally, if the photo indeed depicts Rihanna, it clearly violates her right to privacy as an assault victim.
If the individual responsible for leaking the photo is identified, misdemeanor charges seem appropriate. The LAPD has a duty to Chris Brown, Rihanna, and other celebrities to protect their rights in the course of an investigation. A law enforcement official who would leak such a photo for money is certainly not qualified to protect society. In fact, society needs protection against this type of behavior.
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