Lawmakers want to help criminal defendants save face by keeping their faces out of the newspaper and off the air.
A provision shoehorned into Senate Bill 493 — which ostensibly aims for regulatory reform — would exempt arrest mugshots from the state public records law in most misdemeanor cases. Booking photos in felony arrests would remain public, and those convicted of misdemeanors could see their pictures used after they’re found guilty.
The plan’s meant to short-circuit mugshot tabloids and websites that post batches of booking photos and charge defendants for removal. Supporters say crime rags and Web photo dumps undermine the presumption of innocence.
Few arrestees want their mugshots printed on the newspaper’s front page or flashed onto the screen during the local television news show. We can sympathize. But ultimately, keeping police and sheriffs’ records hidden is too high a price for sparing folks a little embarrassment.
Responsible media outlets don’t publish mugshots to brand the accused with a scarlet letter. We use booking photos to let the community know who our government, through public law enforcement agencies, has detained and brought formal charges against.
Mugshots establish identity. When an arrestee has a common name, reporting his or her arrest can cause confusion and cast a wide net of suspicion over folks whose names are similar. Printing a picture tends to put questions of identity to rest.
Booking photos also hold law enforcement accountable. Claims of excessive force have more weight when cuts and bruises are apparent in official mugshots. Black eyes and bandages don’t prove police brutality, of course, as they could predate arrests or result from assaults on the responding officers. But if someone in custody sustains injuries, we don’t think it’s too much to ask for authorities to explain.
When they’ve secured arrest warrants or have probable cause to affect an arrest, police and sheriff’s deputies have the power to handcuff you, whisk you off to jail and hold you there against your will until you can make bond or until you answer the charges against you in court. That kind of power requires visibility and public scrutiny to ensure it’s being exercised appropriately.
Efforts to hide any information about government arrest and detention should be regarded with suspicion. Keeping mugshots under lock and key may not be tantamount to secret Soviet police raids, but it could start the slide down a slippery slope.
There is legitimate public interest in knowing the names and faces of those who are formally charged with crimes. Excluding all misdemeanor defendants strikes us as arbitrary and thoughtless, as there are plenty of serious misdemeanors that rightly provoke public concern.
Assault on a child under 12 is a misdemeanor. So are sexual battery and indecent exposure. There are misdemeanor as well as felony charges for property crimes like breaking and entering and larceny.
There also are cases in which an elected official, government employee or law enforcement officer is arrested on a misdemeanor charge. Why shouldn’t we who pay these folks’ salaries be able to see their booking photos when they’re accused of crimes? We challenge state lawmakers to give us one good reason.
The bill as currently written does allow law enforcement agencies to release mugshots when they determine it’s necessary for public safety. That’s so vague and open to interpretation that it’s meaningless. It also allows government to decide how much the public deserves to know.
We believe in responsible and judicious use of arrest mugshots. We also recognize that, under the law, a person charged with a crime is innocent until proven guilty.
If the General Assembly wants to protect defendants’ reputations, it could require that jailers take their booking photos before they change into orange jail jumpsuits. Courts have recognized that people perceive guilt when they see inmate uniforms. That’s why defendants are permitted to wear their own clothing when they face the jury.
There are plenty of ways to preserve the presumption of innocence. Hiding arrest photos from the public isn’t one of them.