ROCKINGHAM — Jail booking photos would no longer be available to the public and press in many cases under a bill currently making its way through the state House.
Senate Bill 493, filed in March as an effort to regulate headlights, is now a hodgepodge of unrelated legislation including a section that would make most mug shots of those arrested “confidential” and exempt from public records laws.
The bill gives exemptions for individuals charged with a felony or if law enforcement considers “determines that release of the photograph is reasonably necessary to secure the public’s safety.”
Once convicted, those “confidential” photos would become available to the public.
“It’s not good legislation,” said Beth Grace, executive director of the North Carolina Press Association. “It’s not legislation that’s in the public interest.”
“This bill aims to limit the use of mug shots altogether and violates open government laws that have existed for 100 years,” she said. “People have a right to know who the police are arresting.”
This is the second attempt within the past month to curb publication of mug shots. The first was geared more toward Web sites and tabloids that only publish arrest photos and a list of charges, Grace said.
“This version goes much farther,” she said.
She said bills like this, that contain a “potpourri” of legislation is “where it gets dangerous.”
Grace said legislators don’t have time to read the full text of the bills to know everything they contain.
As for the provision that gives law enforcement the discretion to release the photos or not, Grace said, “I wonder why they get the opportunity to decide what the public ought to know.”
She said most officers are not familiar with public records laws and have enough on their plates without having to decide when something should or shouldn’t be released.
“Why are (legislators) saddling them with another duty?” she asked.
Rep. Garland Pierce, D-Hoke, equated the measure to censorship.
“We’re going down a dangerous road when you start doing things like that,” he said.
Pierce also criticized his legislative colleagues for sneaking it into an unrelated bill, a practice that has become common during short sessions.
“Things like this are not a good way for government to operate,” he said.
Reach reporter William R. Toler at 910-997-4321, ext. 16.