Holding First Responders Accountable for Breach of Duty - Fordham Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal
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Holding First Responders Accountable for Breach of Duty

Holding First Responders Accountable for Breach of Duty

On January 26, 2020, Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gigi, and seven others were victims of a fatal helicopter crash in Calabasas, California.1 The passing of Bryant, a Los Angeles Lakers legend, shocked the basketball community, the United States, and the world. TMZ, the celebrity gossip news website, was the first to break the news and in fact reported the crash far ahead of its media counterparts.2 According to Los Angeles Sheriff Alex Villanueva, TMZ released the news before authorities were able to contact Bryant’s family or the families of the other victims.3 This immediately raises the question of how TMZ received its information and whether its methods were legal.

Vanessa Bryant, wife to Kobe and mother to Gigi, personally went to Villanueva’s office to ask for his assurance that the scene of the accident would be designated a no-fly zone and for other precautions to be put in place to prevent photographers from taking photos and selling them.4 Despite these assurances, people knew how valuable these pictures would be to media outlets and took advantage of the tragic news event.

Days after the crash, the Los Angeles Times reported that an officer described as a deputy visited a bar in Norwalk, California and allegedly showed bar patrons photographs from the scene that were supposed to be confidential.5 According to a TMZ report, a nearby bartender overheard this conversation and filed a complaint online with the Los Angeles Sherriff Department.6 The deputies in possession of the photographs were reportedly told by the Sheriff’s Department that if they “came clean and deleted the photos,” they would not be subject to departmental discipline.7 If this quid pro quo agreement occurred, it likely violates department procedure.8 Further, the deletion of these photos could obstruct the ongoing investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board and the wrongful death lawsuit brought by Vanessa Bryant.9

Villanueva stated there is currently no department policy that directly speaks to deputies photographing such crash scenes with their personal cellphones, but he plans to change that.10 However, the Sheriff’s Department’s Manual of Policies and Procedures states that “members shall not use a personal cellphone to record, store, document, catalog, transmit, and/or forward any image, document, scene, or environment captured as a result of their employment and/or while performing official Department business that is not available or accessible to the general public.”11

On March 2, Villanueva told the media that eight deputies may have shared the photographs in violation of the department’s policy.12 Additionally, only officials from the National Transportation Safety Board or the Los Angeles County Department of the Medical Examiner-Coroner should have taken photos at the scene of the crash. Therefore, any deputies that took photos did so without authorization.13 In an Instagram post on March 1, Vanessa Bryant posted a statement demanding the deputies responsible face the “harshest discipline possible.”14 If Vanessa Bryant and her lawyer, Gary Robb, a prominent helicopter crash attorney, are not satisfied with the internal investigation by the Sherriff’s Department regarding the photos, it is possible they will pursue further legal action against the department.15


  1. Kobe Bryant, Daughter Gianna Die in Helicopter Crash, ESPN (Jan. 26, 2020), https://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/28569438/kobe-bryant-daughter-gianna-die-helicopter-crash [https://perma.cc/R4VK-8DVL].

  2. Marc Tracy, In Haste to Confirm Kobe Bryant, News Media Stumbles, N.Y. Times (Jan. 27, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/27/business/tmz-kobe.html [https://perma.cc/E92K-F8R9].

  3. Id.

  4. Michael McCann, Vanessa Bryant’s Attorney Demands Answers for Unauthorized Sharing of Crash Scene, Sports Illustrated (Mar. 2, 2020),  https://www.si.com/nba/2020/03/02/vanessa-bryant-la-deputies-shared-crash-site-photos-potential-lawsuit [https://perma.cc/7ZWK-A28V].

  5. Id.

  6. Id.

  7. Id.

  8. Id.

  9. Id.

  10. Bruce C.T. Wright, Will Vanessa Bryant Sue Cops For Sharing Graphic Photos From Kobe’s Helicopter Crash?, NewsOne (Mar. 4, 2020), https://newsone.com/3907211/vanessa-bryant-kobe-helicopter-crash-photos-scandal [https://perma.cc/DHC9-ERC2].

  11. Id.

  12. Michael McCann, Vanessa Bryant’s Attorney Demands Answers for Unauthorized Sharing of Crash Scene, Sports Illustrated (Mar. 2, 2020), https://www.si.com/nba/2020/03/02/vanessa-bryant-la-deputies-shared-crash-site-photos-potential-lawsuit [https://perma.cc/7ZWK-A28V].

  13. Id.

  14. Bruce C.T. Wright, Will Vanessa Bryant Sue Cops For Sharing Graphic Photos From Kobe’s Helicopter Crash?, NewsOne (Mar. 4, 2020), https://newsone.com/3907211/vanessa-bryant-kobe-helicopter-crash-photos-scandal [https://perma.cc/DHC9-ERC2].

  15. Michael McCann, Vanessa Bryant’s Attorney Demands Answers for Unauthorized Sharing of Crash Scene, Sports Illustrated (Mar. 2, 2020),  https://www.si.com/nba/2020/03/02/vanessa-bryant-la-deputies-shared-crash-site-photos-potential-lawsuit [https://perma.cc/7ZWK-A28V].

Courtney Alleyne

Courtney Alleyne is a second-year J.D. candidate at Fordham University School of Law, and a staff member of the Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal. She holds a B.B.A. in Marketing and Management from Villanova University.