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Shut Out

By Annie Gausn | Aug. 2, 2006

Law Office Management

Aug. 2, 2006

Shut Out

You hear a lot these days about the erosion of personal privacy. But private investigators sing a different tune.

by Nina Schuyler
      There's been a lot of talk lately about the erosion of personal privacy. But talk to private investigators who track down witnesses or uncover hidden assets, and you'll likely get a very different take on the issue. That's because pending federal and state laws would restrict public-records access to everyone except prosecutors and law enforcement officials.
      "To be perfectly frank, lawyers have really let this issue slip under them," says Bruce Hulme, president of Special Investigations, Inc., and legislative director for the National Council of Investigation & Security Services, a trade group representing private investigators that has been fighting to maintain access to public records since at least 1989.
      That was the year a private investigator, hired by an obsessed fan, obtained actress Rebecca Schaeffer's address through California motor vehicle records. The fan then used that information to stalk and kill her. In response, the California Legislature banned access to any residence address contained in Department of Motor Vehicle records, except by a court, law enforcement agency, or other government agency.
      Up till then, getting an individual's address had been a five-minute job, says Sean Walsh, president of the California Association of Licensed Investigators.
      Now, with the explosion of the Internet and a rash of high-profile cases involving the theft of personal information, many more privacy bills are pending. At the federal level, for example, bills would restrict the sale of Social Security numbers.
      Other bills would limit access to credit headers, which are the part of a credit report that doesn't include credit data but does contain address and identifying information that can be especially useful in locating women who've changed their surnames because of marriage or divorce.
      In Sacramento, meanwhile, a move is afoot to restrict public access to financial records in divorce cases. Proposed by state Senator Kevin Murray (D-Culver City), SB 1015 would allow either party to request redaction from public files of net worth, annual salary, Social Security number, home address, and balances of bank or brokerage accounts. According to the Sacramento Bee, the bill is widely viewed as a personal favor to Ron Burkle, a billionaire grocery magnate and financier who is fighting to shield his records in his divorce case.
      There's also SB 550, proposed by state Senator Jackie Speier (D-San Francisco), which would give individuals certain rights over the information on them held by data brokers. If passed, Californians would be able to access and correct their records, opt out of having their data included in various reports, and obtain an accounting of disclosures of their information.
      "Private investigators rely on data brokers," says Francie Koehler, a private investigator based in Oakland. "People don't live in the same community for years and years any longer, so we can't go knocking on doors to find someone."
      "I understand the need for privacy," Koehler adds, "but if I had a lawsuit against someone, I'd want my attorney and private investigator to be able to locate witnesses on my behalf."

Annie Gausn

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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