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Demi Moore 911 tape prompts more to adopt privacy bill for calls to police

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POSTED February 20, 2012 9:45 p.m.

SACRAMENTO (AP) — A state lawmaker upset over details revealed in a recent emergency call involving actress Demi Moore is seeking to restrict the sort of information that can be publicly disclosed in 911 tapes.

“Eyes rolling back, foaming at the mouth, bleeding from a body part — that’s nobody’s business but the medical personnel and the patient. I think it has crossed the line,” said Assemblywoman Norma Torres, who was a Los Angeles Police Department emergency dispatcher for more than 18 years before her election to the Legislature in 2008.

Current law already allows law enforcement agencies to withhold personal details, but Torres’ AB1275 would prohibit them from releasing medical or personal identifying information contained in emergency calls.

The measure by Torres, D-Pomona, is one of hundreds proposed by lawmakers ahead of a Friday deadline to introduce bills to be considered this year.

This is the second year of a two-year session. Typically, it produces a few hundred bills less than the first year.

Last year, lawmakers introduced 2,381 bills and sent 870 of them to the governor, who signed 774 into law. In 2010, lawmakers considered 1,871 bills and sent 1,029 of them to the governor, of which 722 became law.

Lawmakers already faced a separate deadline at the end of January, when legislation introduced last year had to pass the chamber in which it originated. The bills being introduced for this year face months of committee hearings before the Legislature’s scheduled adjournment Aug. 31.

The bill by Torres, D-Pomona, already is causing a stir.

She said in an interview that her intent is to prevent only the disclosure of medical conditions, but her one-sentence bill contains a second restriction. It says that, “Notwithstanding any other law, a public agency shall not disclose any portion of a 911 emergency telephone call providing medical or personal identifying information.”

Her spokeswoman, Catalina Martinez, said Torres intends a narrow interpretation: “Social Security number, home address, that type of personal information. That’s what we mean by that. It’s within the same concept.”

Critics of the legislation said federal and state laws already provide enough protections.

The media generally can obtain copies of emergency dispatch tapes under the California Public Records Act. The law already allows agencies to withhold information “that is medical or personal that if disclosed would cause an unwarranted invasion of privacy,” said Jim Ewert, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association.

It’s up to each agency to decide what qualifies.

In Moore’s case, Los Angeles fire officials, acting on the advice of the city attorney’s office, cited federal medical privacy rules in redacting details about the actress’ medical condition and substances that witnesses said she might have ingested or smoked. Moore’s publicists did not respond to requests for comment about Torres’ bill.

Making the content of emergency phone calls public provides a way to ensure that dispatchers, police and rescue workers are doing their job properly, said Mark Powers, vice president of the California Broadcasters Association.

People could hesitate before calling 911 if they realize their conversations can be made public, said Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition. But he said restrictions beyond existing law could tip the balance too far in limiting the public’s right to know how emergency workers respond.

Torres said she doesn’t want to limit public access, just personal details.

“If she’s overdosing, on drugs, that’s fair game. What symptoms she has as a result of that overdose, none of your business,” she said.

Torres said she was influenced by her own experience as a bilingual dispatcher. In 1995, she had to listen helplessly as an 11-year-old girl was murdered on the other end of the telephone line.

“I was her only witness,” Torres said. “I heard her head being banged; I heard her pleading for her life; I heard the five shots that ended her life.”

The tape was withheld from public disclosure under existing law, she said, except when it was played in court.

Here are some of the other bills that have been introduced ahead of Friday’s deadline:

— Pet groomers would have to get a license under a bill by Sen. Juan Vargas. The Democrat from San Diego said SB969 was prompted by Lucy, a Yorkshire terrier mix that suffered a detached retina, severed ligament and multiple lacerations during a grooming visit. Vargas is calling his bill “Lucy’s Law.” It would require that groomers be licensed and regulated by the Veterinary Medical Board, paid for by fees on groomers and grooming schools.

— A year after successfully authoring a bill prohibiting the open carry of unloaded handguns, Assemblyman Anthony Portantino, D-La Canada Flintridge, proposes to ban the open display of unloaded rifles and shotguns as well. Portantino said some gun rights supporters started carrying long guns in reaction to his ban on handguns. His AB1527 includes a similar list of exemptions for hunters and for owners transporting their weapons.

— State and local public employees’ pensions would be capped at $80,000 a year if the retiree also receives Social Security, and $100,000 if they do not, under a bill by Assemblyman Donald Wagner, R-Irvine. His AB1633 would affect employees hired after Jan. 1, 2013.

— Rank-and-file state employees would get more protections when they face disciplinary action, under AB1655. The bill by Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, would create a Public Employee’s Bill of Rights Act with protections similar to those already afforded to peace officers, firefighters and managers. The union-backed measure would require that disciplinary charges be brought within one year and give state employees priority over private contractors in performing certain jobs.

— At least three bills would create new specialized license plates, which cost $50 to buy and $40 to renew each year. AB1539 by Assemblywoman Mary Hayashi, D-Hayward, would benefit school anti-bullying programs. AB610 by Assemblyman Jose Solorio, D-Santa Ana, would lower the threshold for advance orders for his license plates, which would benefit pet spay and neuter programs. And AB1589, by Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, would help state parks.

Huffman’s bill goes further by limiting park closures set to take effect this summer. It also would give parks $25 million in bond money to pay for construction projects and let parks use other funding sources to avoid closing, including a charitable check-off on state income tax forms.

— Prison inmates could receive only medically necessary treatment under SB1079. State regulations already prohibit elective procedures such as breast implants, tattoo removals, vasectomies and sex changes, said Nancy Kincaid, a spokeswoman for the federal receiver who oversees inmate medical care. But the bill by Sen. Michael Rubio, D-Shafter, would write the prohibition into state law.

— Homemade food, including baked goods, dry cereal, popcorn, nut mixes, coffee and tea, baking mixes, honey, dried fruits, jams, jellies and candy could be sold in California under a bill by Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Los Angeles. His AB1616 would be similar to laws in 31 other states that have ended restrictions on selling food products prepared in private homes.

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