New Jersey Enacts Cathy’s Law Criminalizing Photo Taking at Emergency Scenes

The State of New Jersey has finally pulled the trigger on Cathy’s Law, joining the state of Connecticut by formally criminalizing the (a) taking or (b) dissemination of emergency scene photos depicting a patient by emergency responders.

Cathy’s Law was named in honor of Cathy Bates of Ocean County, who was fatally injured on October 23, 2009. As she lay dying in her vehicle a volunteer firefighter snapped a photo of her and posted it to Facebook long before her family was notified she had been involved in the crash. Riding the public outrage following the revelation of what occurred, Cathy’s mother, Lucille Bates-Wickward, mounted a grass-roots lobbying campaign intended to help prevent future lapses in judgment by responders.

Governor Chris Christie signed the bill into law yesterday, and it became effective upon signing. New Jersey joins Connecticut who passed a similar law that became effective on October 1, 2011. The Connecticut law imposes a $2,000 fine and 6 months in jail for responders who violate it.

As originally introduced several years ago, Cathy’s Law would have imposed a $10,000 fine and up to 18 months in jail. As enacted the law makes it illegal to take a photo/video depicting the victim “except in accordance with applicable rules, regulations, or operating procedures of the agency employing the first responder”; or to disclose (ie. disseminate, copy, post, forward or share) such a photo/video without the patient’s prior written consent.

Violation of Cathy’s law is by statute deemed to be a “disorderly conduct offense”, and triggers civil liability of the responder to the victim or victim’s family in the amount of $1,000 per photo, plus attorneys fees along with the possibility of punitive damages. Here is a copy of the statute. Cathys Law

I cannot help but feel a sense of failure at the passage of laws such as Cathy’s Law. Had fire service leaders (myself included) had the courage and foresight to address the challenge of emergency scene photo taking through clear policies and proper training of personnel, such a law would be unnecessary. In the memorable words of one of my former officers “Kid, we either keep our own house clean, or someone’s gonna come in here and clean it for us”. His next sentence is also worth considering: “And we’re probably not gonna like the way they clean it”. It is a predictable and therefore preventable problem.

In the mean time, if you are in New Jersey or Connecticut and your department does not have a digital imagery policy that allows you to take photos or video: turn off your helmet cam, turn off your dash cam, and keep your camera or cellphone in your pocket… and don’t be posting photos taken by others!

More on the story.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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