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Court Rules Against CHP Officer Over Grisly Tollway Crash Photos

Family of young Ladera Ranch woman who died on the 241 toll road in Lake Forest can recover legal costs in suit over leaked photos.

A panel of appellate court justices in Santa Ana have rejected a retired California Highway Patrol officer's attempt to get out of a lawsuit involving the leaked photos of a decapitated Ladera Ranch teenager, according to records obtained Thursday.

The Catsouras family, of Ladera Ranch, sued the CHP and two of its employees, Aaron Reich and Thomas O'Donnell, for negligence and violation of privacy, alleging two officers released ghastly photos of Nikki Catsouras after a deadly Halloween 2006 crash. Traveling at more than 100 mph along the 241 toll road in Lake Forest, Catsouras crashed her father's Porsche into a toll booth and was decapitated. Alcohol did not play a role in the crash.

Catsouras' family described her as a shy, free-spirited photography student at Saddleback College who loved to work with special education children, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times.

Appellate Court Justices Eileen Moore, who wrote the majority opinion, William Rylaarsdam and Richard Aronson ruled that the Catsouras family can recover their legal costs, but rejected the family's request for sanctions against Reich.

Reich argued that he was protected by the 1st Amendment because he emailed the photographs to friends and family along with an anti-drunk driving message.

Reich's attorney Jon Schlueter was encouraged that the justices, while not letting his client out of the lawsuit, they did not rule on the merits of the 1st Amendment claim.

Reich destroyed the emails that would show he sent anti-drunk driving messages with the photos at the request of his supervisors, Schlueter said.

The justices questioned during oral arguments whether the recipients of the emails still had them, but Reich's attorneys conceded they had not investigated that.

Schlueter said Reich's attorneys intend to find out if the recipients still had the emails so they can try to prove the retired officer's claims during a lower-court trial that could start in a year.

"This is a huge 1st Amendment case,'' Schlueter said. "What my client did is protected by the 1st Amendment. Some people might not like what he did, but the 1st Amendment protects speech.''

Reich has until July 5 to appeal to the state Supreme Court, but Schlueter doubted his client would go to the higher court. If not, the appellate court will finalize the case July 25 and it will go back to the Orange County Superior Court and attorneys can begin discovery.

O'Donnell has previously argued that he did not forward any of the photos.

The family's lawsuit alleges that the officers sent the photos to personal email accounts and they were later spread virally on hundreds of websites.

—City News Service

Oliver Yu June 03, 2011 at 08:59 PM
Well I think with mistakes and risks, there are certain degrees. For example, the mistake of leaving your homework at home is something mundane and won't hurt anyone. I would hope the lesson of the story is that the mistake of driving 100+ mph with our current technology is consequence of death. Also, you ask if my actions in the past deserve my own death and I firmly believe so. What if someone was sitting on that bench? That person would be dead as well. I firmly believed I could of been unlucky enough where instead of just hitting the bench, it could have splintered and impaled through my door and into me - but no, I was lucky enough to live another day to share my talent today.
Julie Flores June 03, 2011 at 09:04 PM
I don't know if I believe in luck, but I will just concede the point. I just want to know if you feel that Nikki is unlucky for the outcome of foolish choices or that if you really feel deep in your heart that she deserves to not be here at all? Because if you feel she deserves not to be here, then your notion of luck as part of life doesn't fly. I have an inkling, and I could be wrong, that you really don't feel she deserved to die.
Oliver Yu June 03, 2011 at 09:07 PM
I don't think she deserves to die, but she did as a consequence to her actions. I also believe she is resonsible for her actions, but paid a heavy price for it. The lesson one is suppose to take away from this is, if you drive recklessly, you will die. That is all aside from the first amendment mumbo jumbo.
Julie Flores June 03, 2011 at 09:14 PM
I don't think anyone would argue that she is was not at fault, of course she was. She paid the ultimate price. And you have an opportunity to share your experiences with younger people so they don't suffer the same fate as Nikki and you did a beautiful job with the mock DUI. Maybe people would take your point if it came from a more compassionate place since you can absolutely relate to the choice that Nikki made.
Oliver Yu June 03, 2011 at 09:17 PM
Thanks Julie. I just think my view of the world is a bit jaded as I've grown up with multi-millionaires that were so before they even turned 16. I've seen people with life handed to them and gotten the world and people that worked hard their whole life get kicked to the ground. The world is an unfair place and it sucks, but everyone just gots to make do.

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