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Vanessa Bryant Sues Sheriff’s Department, Says They Tried to Cover Up Deputies Taking Crash Site Photos

From Getty Images: “CALABASAS, CALIFORNIA – JANUARY 27: Emergency personnel work at the helicopter crash site that claimed the life of former NBA great Kobe Bryant on January 27, 2020 in Calabasas, California. Bryant, 41, his daughter Gianna, 13, and seven others perished in the accident yesterday.”

Vanessa Bryant, the widow of basketball legend Kobe Bryant, has sued the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD). She says that officials tried to cover up that deputies inappropriately took photos of the January 26 crash site in which her husband, their 13-year-old daughter Gianna Bryant, and seven other people died.

At least eight deputies took pictures, with one even using these in an attempt to impress a woman at a bar, according to the complaint obtained by Law&Crime. That was revealed after a bartender overheard this, and filed a written complaint to the LASD, said the lawsuit.

Instead of contacting families, starting an investigation, or inspecting the deputies’ phones to see whether and how these photos were shared, Sheriff Alex Villanueva “directed a cover-up, summoning the deputies to the Lost Hills station and telling them that, if they deleted the photos, they would face no discipline,” Bryant’s complaint says. “The deputies purported to accept the Sheriff’s offer, receiving a free pass in exchange for destroying evidence of their misconduct.”

But a report for the Los Angeles Times revealed the development, the lawsuit noted.

Nine people died in that crash, as the helicopter traveled through foggy conditions. The passengers were attending a basketball tournament.

The Altobelli, Bryant, Chester, Mauser families have each filed separate lawsuits in the crash, blaming the pilot for what happened. Island Express, the defendant in these lawsuits, says the crash was the fault of air traffic controllers.

According to Vanessa Bryant’s complaint, the LASD knew that officers taking improper photos of human remains was a long-running problem among law enforcement, and that on top of that, there was an issue with law enforcement in the Los Angeles area handling information connected to celebrity-related cases. The plaintiff voiced concern that she and her family would see the crash scene photos on the Internet. The lawsuit asserted that the department stonewalled Vanessa Bryant when she sought assurances that LASD took reasonable steps to control the spread of the pictures.

Citing the 2012 Ninth Circuit ruling in Marsh v. San Diego, the complaint said there is a “substantive due process right under the United States Constitution to control the death images and physical remains of deceased family members.” That lawsuit was over San Diego Deputy District Attorney Jay S. Coulter, who revealed he photocopied 16 autopsy pictures of a murdered 2-year-old boy, according to the Ninth Circuit opinion. After retirement, he kept one of the pictures, and gave it to a newspaper and television station, said the court. The child’s mother Brenda Marsh sued. Results were mixed for the plaintiff. From that qualified immunity ruling:

Marsh has a constitutionally protected right to privacy over her child’s death images. But, because Coulter wasn’t acting under color of state law when he sent the autopsy photograph to the press, that claim must be dismissed. And, because there was no “clearly established” law to inform him that any of his earlier conduct was unlawful, Coulter is entitled to qualified immunity. Therefore, we affirm the district court’s judgment.

The sheriff’s department says none of the crash pictures became public.

“Shortly following this tragic crash, Sheriff Villanueva sponsored legislation which now makes it a crime for public safety personnel to take or share non-official pictures of this nature,” they said in a statement on Wednesday to Law&Crime. “As a result of the swift actions we took under extraordinary circumstances, no pictures made it into the public arena. We continue to offer our heartfelt sympathies for the victims and their families.”

[Featured post image via Josh Lefkowitz/Getty Images; picture depicting the crash victims via Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images for BET]

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