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I'm in the midst of researching a person who was born in 1892 and died in 1969 in California. The subject has no living heirs.

I've requested documents from the California Department of Consumers Affairs regarding a license held by this individual when they were alive.

The state has returned many valuable documents but much of the useful info has been redacted. For example, the individuals employer names and the individuals work/home addresses have been redacted.

The state is citing California Civil Code sections 1798.1 and 1798.3 as to why the information may not be released.

I've read the code and it defined the protected individual as a "natural person" - but I'm unable to determine if a deceased person is still considered a natural person.

In short, is there any legal argument for requesting that the information, which is nearing 100 years old, should be released?

  • Have you talked to a good research librarian (say one at a university library)? They may be your best bet for getting practical help, since they are likely to have experience trying to get records from CA state offices. – Just a guy Nov 26 '19 at 20:54
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It would appear1, 2, 3, 4 that a dead person is no longer a natural person. Records about a dead person would not be protected.

However, it doesn't necessarily follow that the protections of 1798.3 for records that were created when the person was alive would cease on that person's death. Some rights of the individual survive death and some don't.

I don't believe there is any case law on the matter so its an open question. If you do challenge it, please come back and let us know the result.

To be honest, it seems like a significant oversight on the part of the legislators - laws in other jurisdictions I know of specifically deal with how long records stay sealed after death.

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  • Could the state be making an argument based on [1798.43]( leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/…)? The redacted info are addresses of my research subject and his partners addresses in the 1950s. Perhaps the addresses themselves still exist and making them public might infringe upon the current inhabitants in some way? I'd love to challenge it out of intellectual curiosity. I'd have no idea how beyond responding to the email chain I'm currently on with the state. – doremi Nov 26 '19 at 5:47
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    @doremi a lot of privacy legislation is a reaction and, in some cases an overreaction. We used to have telephone books which listed people alphabetically with their address and phone number but that’s no longer allowed because ... actually I don’t know what follows “because”. – Dale M Nov 26 '19 at 8:16
  • @DaleM Are phone books not allowed in Australia? They are definitely still legal in the US, although rare. Many people opted out with the spread of on-line directories. Plus in many areas, having all that paper is considered eco-unfriendly. vox.com/2014/8/21/6040585/phonebooks-yellow-pages-delivery – Just a guy Nov 26 '19 at 21:37
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    @Justaguy yes they are allowed - my point was that they contain “personal information” that was fine to make public in that context but the same information has to be kept confidential in others. For no good reason that I can see. – Dale M Nov 27 '19 at 0:07
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    @DaleM Perhaps there is a non-privacy related argument to be made in the context of a state document that discloses a former address associated with an individual. For example, if the address of where a celebrity died were published, it could affect the current and future value of the location or draw unwanted attention to the current owners. That context doesn't exist in a phone book listing with the same information. – doremi Nov 27 '19 at 4:41
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Dead people are "natural people" (the term is used to distinguish corporations and so on). There does not seem to be any exception made in the case the individual is dead or has been dead for some time, other than to conservators, beneficiaries, or for statistical purposes (etc.), or with permission of next of kin.

The Public Records Act limits disclosure of personal information but has an explicit exemption

If the subject whose privacy is to be protected is deceased, an heir, beneficiary, designated immediate family member, or authorized legal representative of the deceased subject whose privacy is to be protected.

That means, protection of privacy of a dead person was a legislative concern 9 years before the Information Practices Act was enacted. The laws are not exactly the same, but since both laws cover government records and their disclosure, there may be similar "privacy concerns" reasoning underlying both laws.

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  • The sections of the Public Records Act you cite have to do with the release of videos recorded by police body cams. They were added to the PRA recently, so they don't speak to legislative concern before the passage of the IPA. However, you might argue that the existence of these exceptions for body-cams speaks to the legislature's general assumption about privacy of records involving dead people under the IPA. – Just a guy Nov 26 '19 at 5:23
  • I have proven that there are no heirs, beneficiaries, immediately family members or legal reps alive nor related to the information redacted. The redacted info is the mailing address of my subject over four different years. I've also proven that at least 2 have already been published by an archive at the federal level. They didn't respond to that specific argument. Presumably, they have discretion at the state level to decide what/what not to redact regardless of what the Feds release. – doremi Nov 27 '19 at 4:29

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