Proposed Bill Would Make It a Misdemeanor to Take Pictures of Corpses
CHARLESTON, WV – A proposed bill would make it a misdemeanor to photograph a corpse except for “legitimate purposes.”
House Bill 2122 sponsored by Delegate George Ambler, R-Greenbrier, would make photographing a corpse a fineable offense unless it was done by law enforcement or for crime scene analysis. The bill also makes an exception for those taking pictures at a funeral, wake or memorial.
According to a note at the end of the bill, “the purpose of this bill is to make it illegal for anyone to photograph a corpse except for certain legitimate purposes.”
Penalties include a $50-500 fine for the first offense and 24 hours in jail and a $100-750 fine for the second offense. A third offense could result in jail time of up to six months and a fine of $1,000-5,000.
Ambler said the bill stems from an incident several years ago where members of an ambulance service in Greenbrier County were accused of taking pictures of an accident victim and then posting the pictures online and sending them to family members.
The owners of a funeral home associated with the ambulance services also were accused of similar acts in an unrelated case.
“The family was devastated when they received these pictures,” Ambler said. “They went to the law and said ‘this shouldn’t be happening.’ It went to court and the judge had to say ‘what you did was wrong but there is nothing in state law to punish you.’
“What I have asked is to put this in statute, to have some sort of penalty for people who do this kind of thing just for fun,” he said.
Ambler said such an act would be the same as taking pornographic pictures and distributing them without permission. He said the bill has been introduced the past two years but gained no traction. It was defeated in committee in 2013 and last year was not taken up.
Don Smith, executive director of the West Virginia Press Association, said the bill could have a detrimental effect on journalists.
“It’s my understanding that Delegate Ambler’s bill isn’t intended to restrict the media from doing it’s job at accident or crime scenes. I would like to talk with the delegate to get a better understanding of the intent of this bill,” Smith said in a written statement. “In general, the WVPA opposes legislation that limits the public’s freedom.
Smith said it is not clear how the bill would impact the general public.
“Would someone with a cellphone be a criminal for taking a picture at an accident? I know there have been incidents involving individuals photographing corpses in professional situations, and I think that is the area of concern for Delegate Ambler,” he said. “It’s a bill we will monitor.”
Ambler said the bill was never intended to target the media. A journalist “would have legitimate reason for taking those pictures,” he said.
Ambler also said the bill would act as a deterrent for those who might seek to take such pictures “for thrills or to be funny” or to use them against grieving families.
“These are misdemeanors,” under the bill, he said. “We’re not looking to put someone away for 50 years, but if you do this and are found guilty, you should face some sort of consequences.”