Here’s an issue you may not have thought of before: Should mugshots be made freely available to the public, such as online?
People indicted on federal charges have their mugshots kept under wraps. For other crimes at the state and local level, you’ve seen the mugshots lined up row and row on the mugshot sites. You’ve also seen them here.
Mugshots provide useful information to the public. For example, suppose a Dan Smith is arrested. Is that the Dan Smith that lives down the street or some other Dan Smith? If the public has a mugshot to look at, then people know the answer. They also get to learn the race of the arrested person, although that’s sometimes clear from the name.
The Justice Department won’t budge from its position that federal mug shots of criminals should be kept secret, arguing in a U.S. Supreme Court brief that jailhouse photos are “embarrassing, nonpublic” moments that add to defendants’ grief.
The agency clarified its stance as part of an ongoing legal battle over whether federal law enforcement, like many states, should be required to hand over booking photos.
“Mug shots reveal much more than the sterile fact of arrest and booking,” the Justice Department wrote in a Supreme Court brief filed this month. “They graphically depict individuals in the embarrassing, nonpublic moment of their processing into the criminal justice system.”
The case has been appealed to the nation’s highest court following a lawsuit brought by the Detroit Free Press newspaper. The Free Press, which is owned by Gannett, the publisher of USA TODAY and dozens of other newspapers, has challenged the federal government over its decision not to release the mug shots of four Michigan police officers charged with public corruption charges in 2013.
The Free Press has won four lawsuits over the issue.
The agency’s response aligns with the rulings of three federal appeals courts, which determined the photos should be kept from the public. In July, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals found the promotion of mug shots on the internet and social media have made booking photos more “embarrassing and humiliating” than before.
The Justice Department, in its latest response, played to the demeaning nature of the photos.
“The adage that one picture is worth a thousand words is apt in this context,” the response said. “The visual depiction of the individual’s appearance at booking in a law-enforcement facility reflects a uniquely powerful and lasting image of what can be one of the most difficult episodes in an individual’s life.”
Lawyers for the Free Press have contended the government is less interested in protecting the reputations of the accused, but rather want to have a grip on the flow of information to the press.
“The public has a right to see who the government is indicting,” said Free Press attorney Herschel Fink on Saturday. “Given the fact that names can be similar, a photo is the best way to identify who the government is prosecuting.”
Dissemination of mug shots can serve the public interest by revealing whether or not a suspect has been beaten by police, the Free Press has argued. Media scrutiny of mug shots can also reveal whether federal agencies are arresting high numbers of minorities, and in some cases, a suspect’s photo may help solve crimes if a past victim recognizes the person.
I think an argument could be made to keep mugshots under wraps when people have committed minor, nonviolent crimes, i.e. class C and class B misdemeanors, for example. A woman arrested for jaywalking perhaps deserves some privacy protection.
What do you think? Does the public always have the right to see every mugshot.