Dear Matthew Alice:
Every time I watch the show Cops, I wonder why the arrestees would consent to being on TV. There is a disclaimer at the beginning that says, "All suspects are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law," but that can't possibly make it legal to exploit people this way, can it? If not, why would they consent? And why don't the "suspects" question the fact that they are being filmed during their arrest?
-- Nancy in Carlsbad
Don�t do the crime if you can't handle the publicity. Rule number one in the felon's guide to life. If the authorities catch you crawling into somebody's house through the dog door or carrying out jewelry and appliances in a bed sheet, you've got a lot of 'splainin' to do. And it's all public record. You, law-abiding citizen Nancy, might have an expectation of privacy in, say, your own bedroom; anybody who ambushes you there with a camera couldn't air the tapes without your permission. A criminal certainly hopes he'll have privacy when he's rifling through your dresser drawers; but if the cops bust in on him with camera and sound crews, privacy laws won't protect him. No signed release needed because as a suspect in a crime, he's now a public figure.
A trickier question was recently answered by the California Supreme Court. Say that back in your misguided young adulthood you committed a crime, and it was documented by one of the dozens of true-crime TV shows-- Cops, Forensic Files, City Confidential, American Justice, The Prosecutors, The Investigators, Psychic Detectives, Body of Evidence, True Stories of the FBI�. So you do your time and turn your life around. Now you're a solid citizen. But TV loves a rerun (film it once, air it a thousand times, make big profits), and 15 years later you still see your felonious face on the tube, all the ugly details of your crime spelled out as if it had been committed last week. Will the courts help you stop the network from airing the show and ruining your new, improved reputation? Unfortunately, no. Public record is public record forever and ever.