Victims' Rights vs. Public Needs

February 07, 1993

The desire for privacy is an intensely personal emotion. It is also emerging as an intensely complicated area of the law, particularly when individual privacy concerns and the public interest diverge. Just that sort of conflict is raised by a bill introduced in the General Assembly by Sen. Janice Piccinini to forbid police from identifying victims of violent crimes unless they are dead, missing or agree to the release of their names.

The Baltimore County legislator says that crime victims are twice violated, first when they are assaulted or burglarized, and second when their names are printed or broadcast. They should have a respite of a couple of days before they deal with the media, she says.

It's not that simple. As the bill is worded, more than names and addresses might be withheld. The usual bureaucratic tendency is to lean over backward to enforce a rule. Police officers would have the additional burden of deleting information from reports otherwise available to the public. That would divert officers from more important work. In the worst cases it would be a convenient excuse for concealing information the police don't want the public to know for nefarious reasons. Similar gag attempts have worked that way in the past.

The senator concedes the names of victims would become public eventually. That would certainly have been true in the incident that led to this bill. Two of her constituents were robbed of $250,000 in their Green Spring Valley home. Even without this law, the police withheld word of the crime for a day, at the victims' request. It was still a major news story, though -- as it would have been even a week later.

Reporters will get the information through other channels, often by contacting neighbors. If the criminal is arrested, the victim's name becomes public in the courts. This bill would be a delaying action at best, one that could fail to warn other citizens of potential danger.

When the courts are confronted with conflicting rights, they perform a balancing test. Is the result to be gained from chipping away at one right great enough to override another right? In this case we believe the answer is clearly no. The bill would not really protect victims' privacy. At best it would impair the public's right to know what is happening in its own community while creating a false sense of protection for crime victims.

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