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Los Angeles�There’s no shortage of stories from families who complain that their privacy has been violated by lawyers advertising with direct mail to addresses obtained from police blotters. Julie and Dennis Danielson of Riverside County, Calif., had a mentally ill son arrested on suspicion of drug abuse, and were deluged by mail from defense attorneys. One of the envelopes bore an embarrassing “Experts in Drug Charges” label. “Jail mail,” growled William Kenison, deputy county counsel for Riverside County, who considers himself between a rock and a hard place. “Oh, do I hate this issue.” In response to the Danielsons’ complaint, Kenison has advised his sheriff’s department to quit e-mailing arrest records to lawyers unless they swear not to use the data to troll for possible clients. “Our perspective is that the law is still unsettled-we’re willing to comply, we’re just waiting for someone to tell us what to do,” he said. Eighteen of California’s largest counties have cracked down on the practice of supplying names and addresses, according to Dave Fisher, whose company, United Reporting Publishing Corp. of San Juan Capistrano, is at the center of the courthouse information industry. “We call it ‘enforcing the statute’ and it’s the workers . . . in the courthouses who make the decisions about who gets access to what,” Fisher said. The statute, effective as of July 1996, is an amendment to the California Public Records Act-Gov’t Code Sec. 6254(f)(3)-that allows police or sheriffs to refuse to sell the addresses of arrestees. A member of the public, or for that matter a secretary for a local driving under the influence lawyer, can get the names and addresses of arrestees, but only for a “scholarly, journalistic, political or governmental purposes” or “for investigation purposes” if sought by a licensed private investigator. Under the statute, the requester must declare under penalty of perjury that the information will “not be used directly or indirectly to sell a product or service to any individual or group of individuals.” The statute was at first struck down as an undue infringement on free speech rights. United Reporting litigated the issue against the Los Angeles Police Department, losing the battle when the facial constitutionality of the statute was upheld, 7-2, by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1999. Los Angeles Police Dept. v. United Reporting Publishing Corp., No. 98-678. But it won the war when a court certified the company as a news outlet. “There are some 600 agencies with the information we want in California,” said Fisher, whose title is “news director.” “We sell the information to small newspapers-to driving schools, to insurance brokers, to counselors.” Lawyers make up a minority of United Reporting’s customers, but Fisher declined to give percentages. While the news portion of the site is free, the “jail mail” requires a subscription of $750 to $2,500 a month, according to Fisher, for as many as 5,000 arrest reports. Lawyers on either side of the controversy make points familiar to those who debate television advertising. Opponents call it “tacky,” while supporters respond that critics are being “elitist.” Defense attorney Charles Kish of the Law Office Charles Kish in Temecula, Calif., said his firm sent 50,000 letters over the past three years and garnered some 300 clients, using names and addresses e-mailed by county sheriffs. He’s not doing it now, and noted that he can “take it or leave it” as a marketing tactic. Court clerks in Fresno County, Calif., say they are unlikely to deny data to anyone who signs a release. “We’ve got one lawyer who sends people down to get that information, then says he’s a journalist because he ‘publishes’ the names and addresses a week later on his Web site,” explained a clerk. “In the end, it’s pretty hard to see the difference between that and the old police blotter reports you can read in the Sacramento Bee.” Both the State Bar of California and the American Bar Association have written ethics opinions on the issue of direct mail. The opinions set out how direct mail can be acceptable if it is nonharassing and nonintimidating.

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