Prison Gang Whistleblower Sues A&E for Broadcasting His Picture

William Austin joins others who have sued the cable network for allegedly putting their lives in danger.

Celebrities aren't the only ones who make claims to protect their names and images. Prison gang members do it, too.

William Austin, a former member of Public Enemy #1 before he blew the whistle on the California prison group, is now suing A&E Network for misappropriating his publicity and violating his privacy.

A&E has a long history of being sued over such reality shows as Gangland, Female Forces, The First 48 and Dog the Bounty Hunter, many of which pertain to the criminal law arena. From a lawsuit over a prison wife who allegedly smuggled drugs in her private parts to a suit emanating from the aftermath of a filmed police shooting, the cable network has walked a fine line on issues of publicity and privacy.

In the latest case, A&E aired an episode of Gangland on April 21, 2010, called "Public Enemy #1," which allegedly used private photos of Austin.

The plaintiff says he was a high-ranking member of the gang and gained notoriety as a whistleblower when he testified during the government's prosecution of the gang's leader, Donald "Popeye" Mazza. He says his image has gone out to millions and that he now "constantly fears for his life and is in daily anguish as a result of the unauthorized publication of his likeness."

He's lodged a complaint in Los Angeles Superior Court seeking actual and punitive damages and disgorgement of profits.

Austin follows other plaintiffs who have made similar allegations in court against the network.

Jerry Lee Bustos sued A&E for allegedly defaming him in an episode of Gangland entitled Aryan Brotherhood, claiming the the unsolicited television appearance devasted his popularity in jail and caused him to get death threats. The case was dismissed because the program was deemed to be "substantially true" and couldn't support a libel claim.

As for allegations of publicity and privacy violations, Eran Best sued A&E following her arrest on the network show, Female Forces. She alleged she was filmed without consent and that the depiction caused her severe emotional distress. Unfortunately for the plaintiff, Best's allegation that her publicity rights were misappropriated couldn't withstand a First Amendment defense. An Illinois federal court found that "courts have repeatedly held that information about arrests rises to the level of public concern" and that the show "conveyed truthful information on matters of public concern protected by the First Amendment."

The judge also added that the show might have been an "entertainment program, as opposed to a pure news broadcast," but that it didn't change the First Amendment analysis.

The oft-sued cable network seems to have the upper hand in these types of fights, but the cost of doing these shows probably entails a big legal budget.

A&E hasn't yet responded to our request for comment.


Twitter: @eriqgardner