ER - DA mistake violates victims’ rights

DA mistake violates victims’ rights
By JOHN C. OSBORN , The Eureka Reporter
Published: Mar 13 2008, 11:47 PM · Updated: Mar 14 2008, 12:21 AM

In a mistake that the District Attorney admits to, the names of both alleged sexual assault victims in the case against David Gundersen found their way into the public record. This happened despite both women’s request that the information remain confidential.

In cases like the one against Gundersen, confidential personal information is required by law to not be made public. One of the reasons for this is that revealing personal information could have harmful effects to victims of sexual violence.

Gundersen, chief of the Blue Lake Police Department, awaits trial on suspicion of 19 charges, including 12 counts of spousal rape with an intoxicant and one count of kidnapping to commit another crime.

Confidentiality laws are in place to protect victims of sexual assault, so they can feel comfortable coming forward to testify,

Yet several documents, found in Gundersen’s case file, reveal the identity of the victims.

One document was a request by one of the alleged victims to have her name kept confidential, although the form not only has her name but also her address and contact information.

“That should not be there,” District Attorney Paul Gallegos said of the document. “That’s an error on my part.”

Another court record — the statement for probable cause, which led to an arrest warrant issued against Gundersen — had repeated uses of the same alleged victim’s name.

Gallegos said he was unsure how the name had gotten placed into the document as it had been given to a judge by his office.

No law enforcement agency is allowed to make public the name of any victim of a sex crime who chooses to keep it confidential, according to Section 293 of the penal code. The confidential names of victims are only supposed to be made available to the appropriate
people, mainly law enforcement officials.

Victims’ addresses are also not intended for public viewing when sex crimes are involved, according to the same penal code.

The second alleged victim, who, according to other court documents, is known as one of the confidential victims, had her name on a confidential report from the Eureka Police Department.

“If you have identifiable information in there, it’s not supposed to be in the record,” said Executive Director of the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault Suzanne Brown-McBride regarding confidentiality.

Despite the error, Gallegos said he doesn’t believe it will affect the case against Gundersen. That case’s preliminary hearing was moved forward two weeks to April 11.

With the names of the victims clearly identified in court records, one could look at other reports where they are called “Confidential Victims” to get full details into the crimes that allegedly happened to them.

“It’s fairly easy to sort through who that is,” Brown-McBride said.

Protections for sexual assault victims don’t go away after trial, she said. These protections are also in place for victims when the sex offender is released from prison.

Publicly revealing the details, and personal information, of someone who was sexually assaulted can have grave consequences, said North Coast Rape Crisis Team Community Outreach Coordinator Paula Arrowsmith-Jones, who spoke in general and not about the
Gundersen case.

“It could be a discouragement for those people coming forward,” she said. “It can’t help but affect the decisions that they make.”

It’s rare for cases involving sexual assault to receive widespread publicity, but when it does, hundreds of survivors watch to see how its handled, Arrowsmith-Jones said.

A survivor can be victimized twice when their identity is revealed and scrutinized publicly, said Executive Director of the Emma Center Marybeth Bian.

“Once it’s out,” she said, “it’s a snowball effect.”

Although California provides protection to survivors of sexual assault, Arrowsmith-Jones said it doesn’t do enough to give the person privacy if they don’t want their identity known. Examples of this are cases of spousal rape — a different charge from rape in California —
that identify the person harmed in the charge.

Gallegos, who said he was surprised that this information was in the case file, said the first step was to notify both victims of what happened. Then he would “act accordingly,” which includes having the documents with the victims’ names sealed by the court.

He said he reviewed the case file and that it was clearly an oversight on his part.

His office works hard to not reveal the names of those who want confidentiality, but couldn’t guarantee that mistakes wouldn’t happen, Gallegos said. “By and large we are successful.”

Maintaining the privacy of survivors is critical to the healing process, Arrowsmith-Jones said. Allowing for public scrutiny does the opposite.

“These protections are very important,” she said. “The best all of us can do is respect that.”

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