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Convicted criminals can’t escape their pasts even if they’ve done their time and blended back into society. That’s the effect of a California Supreme Court ruling on Monday that says news organizations and entertainment companies cannot be held liable for reporting criminal facts contained in public records no matter how long ago the crime occurred. The unanimous decision overrules one of the court’s own 1971 opinions and follows a series of precedential rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court. “We, like the high court, are ‘reluctant to embark on a course that would make public records generally available to the media but forbid their publication if offensive to the sensibilities of the supposed reasonable man,’” wrote Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar, citing the high court’s finding that “Such a rule would make it very difficult for the media to inform citizens about the public business and yet stay within the law.” Steve Gates, a resident of San Bernardino County, had sued for invasion of privacy after the Discovery Channel aired a program in 2001 recounting the 1988 murder for hire of prominent San Diego car salesman Salvatore Ruscitti. Gates, who was employed by the man who arranged the hit, was accused of trying to cover for his boss and was sentenced in 1992 to three years in prison as an accessory after the fact. Gates served only 13 months, and returned to a relatively quiet life until the Discovery Channel aired an episode of “The Prosecutors” about the murder. The “Deadly Commission” episode showed a mug shot of Gates. Gates based his invasion of privacy claim on Briscoe v. Reader’s Digest Association Inc., a 1971 ruling by the California Supreme Court that said the First Amendment provides less protection for reports about past crimes than for “hot news” of immediate public interest. On Monday, however, the justices held that the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1975 ruling in Cox Broadcasting Corp. v. Cohn, 420 U.S. 469 — and four other subsequent decisions — had “fatally undermined” Briscoe. “The high court in Cox flatly stated that ‘the states may not impose sanctions on the publication of truthful information contained in official court records open to public inspection,’” Werdegar wrote. The case had attracted a large group of amici curiae, including CBS News, Los Angeles Times Communications, The Copley Press and the Motion Picture Association of America. All argued that a ruling against Discovery Communications Inc. could have a chilling effect on the industry and cause journalists and documentarians to second-guess any stories that identified the participants in older crimes. Gates’ lawyers had contended that resurrecting crimes for movies or publications undermined efforts at rehabilitation and that under Briscoe, Gates was no longer a “hot news” item. The court disagreed. “The high court has never suggested, in Cox or in any subsequent case,” Werdegar wrote, “that the fact the public record of a criminal proceeding may have come into existence years previously affects the absolute right of the press to report its contents.” Gates was represented by La Mesa, Calif., lawyer Niles Sharif, while Discovery Communications was defended by Louis Petrich, a partner in Los Angeles’ Leopold, Petrich & Smith. The ruling is Gates v. Discovery Communications Inc., 04 C.D.O.S. 10638.

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