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Censoring property records is not a solution for safety

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Posted: Saturday, May 12, 2012 12:00 am

Are Occupy protesters in the East Bay Area tracking down police officers using property records and threatening their families?

We've heard that rumor from a couple of sources but haven't confirmed it.

Even if it's not literally true, the possibility of a personal threat arising from electronic records has California cops and other public figures really scared.

First the local angle:

A few weeks ago, a Bay Area police officer called with an odd request: He wanted the names of his children deleted from their grandfather's online obituary.

Why? we asked.

The officer said several members of his department and their families had been harassed. He suspected either members of the Occupy movement or the group Anonymous were behind this. These people had acted on information gleaned from the Web.

He felt vulnerable, he said, and wanted to protect his family.

We asked the relative who actually placed the obituary to contact us, and we removed the names.

Then last week, we learned from newspaper lobbyists that police unions are pushing a bill that would strike the names of public safety employees from county property records.

The custodians of these records, the state's county recorders, are beside themselves. San Joaquin County Recorder Ken Blakemore thinks AB 2299 is a bad idea. So does the board of the California Newspaper Publishers Association.

Why?

First you have to realize how central property records are to the right of property ownership and honest government in our democracy. This system goes back five centuries to when kings and aristocrats thought nothing of seizing a citizen's property on a whim. These records protect citizens from being defrauded and prevent the politically powerful from defrauding the government.

Here's a 21st century for instance: A search of property records has uncovered suspiciously low assessments being granted contributors to the L.A. County Assessors election campaign.

Here are a few hypotheticals:

Spouses in divorces could hide their assets from each other during settlement negotiations. Cops could hide illicit gifts of whole houses and apartment buildings. Terrorists could use county computers to search for properties owned by AB2299-exempt persons and have the addresses of every police officer and dispatcher in a county.

The possible mischief is endless.

But the threat to police officers and any number of citizens is real, too.

How can we have open, honest government and feel secure in our homes?

Blakemore thinks those who inquire about a person's property might be required to give up their own identity. That could create a trail to a crime committed later. But it might lead to powerful people intimidating those who suspect them of impropriety. But it's a thought.

Another is that those who feel threatened ought to create trusts to hold their property. That would mask their identities and make a records search more difficult without completely erasing a trail of wrong-doing.

The answer won't be easy, but censoring our system of property records should be undertaken carefully.

A hasty decision will be regretted by property owners, lenders, neighbors and taxpayers alike.

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