The state Department of Motor Vehicles has reversed its decades-old policy of giving the media driver’s license photo of deceased drivers.
The media has used these photos to identify Californians killed in traffic accidents, crimes and other causes.
The DMV recently informed news outlets that it “revisited” its long-standing photo policy "following the tragic San Bernardino shooting."
The agency based its decision on two sections of the state vehicle code. The agency now interprets the code to prohibit the "release (of) photographs to any other than the applicant" and bars the disclosure of "all records relating to the physical or mental condition of a person."
The DMV now argues “a photograph is information related to the physical condition of a person.” The department said it is “also concerned for family members who must cope with the loss of someone they love and wants to respect their privacy.”
Lynn Walsh, president-elect of the Society of Professional Journalists, said the DMV’s policy shift is a setback for public access to public documents.
"While I can understand the need to protect an individual's privacy, when someone has their photo taken by the DMV for use on their California driver's license, the photo becomes a public record," she said. "Records like that belong to the public and should be released. Not allowing the public access to them would be a step in the opposite direction of transparency."
Walsh is also an executive producer at NBC 7.
Before this policy change, the DMV sent the media photos of deceased drivers after confirming the driver’s death with the coroner or medical examiner in the county where the person died.
It was an informal policy that did not require the media to invoke the California Public Records Act to obtain the photos.
NBC 7 and another local station, KFMB Channel 8, have both submitted formal public record act requests for several photos of deceased drivers, in hopes that the DMV will release the photos as a public record or further explain its rationale for the policy change.