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Archive for February, 2014|Monthly archive page

Should mug shots be open public records?

In Advocacy on February 21, 2014 at 11:00 pm

Websites that publish mug shots of all arrested individuals and then charge for removal of the images, have angered both citizens and public officials across the nation, resulting in what could be viewed as a threat to open public records.

Some states have enacted legislation that would regulate the “extortion” tactics of websites such as mugshots.com, while others have moved to restrict the release of intake photos to all citizens and media. Some have started requiring a signed, sworn, statement from anyone acquiring a mug shot that they will not sell it or place it on a website that charges for removal.

A bill considered by our neighboring state in the Georgia House of Representatives would exempt mug shots from the state’s Open Records Act.

In its original form, the bill would exempt intake photos, mug shots, of arrested people who have not been convicted of a crime from the state’s Open Records Act.

Obviously, and understandably, we oppose any erosion of the Open Records Act.

Public information should always remain public.

Attorney David Hudson, who has arguably done more to champion the cause of open government than anyone in the region, has correctly pointed out that major revisions to the Open Meeting Act, under the direction of the Georgia Attorney General’s Office, were ratified in 2012 and it hardly seems time to be revisiting, and weakening, its provisions.

The publication of mug shots can often be a valuable tool used by law enforcement to help catch dangerous people and help keep communities safe.

A mug shot in the local newspaper may help someone identify a person accused of violent crime or who may be a danger to children, after the suspect has been bonded out of jail and is awaiting trial. Homicides and even child predator cases can sometimes take months or years for the court to determine guilt or innocence.

While the proposed bill would not have prohibited the publication of a suspect’s name, age, address and the charges, sometimes the accused may be from another state and the age and address would simply not be enough to identify the accused.

A newspaper reader could see a photo of an accused child predator, however, and alert officials they saw the person lurking around a school or daycare, for example.

Placing the burden on local law enforcement to make the determination of when a mug shot should be published and when it should not be is most likely a burden of responsibility the authorities would rather not have placed on their shoulders.

Responsible newspapers and other media outlets make responsible decisions every day, and news judgment should be left to journalists, not to government.

Putting any branch of government in charge of what news can and cannot be published is a dangerous precedent and a potential threat to democracy.

The Georgia bill, according the the sponsor, is to retard websites such as mugshots.com that run every mug shot of every arrested person in almost every jurisdiction and then charges people a “ransom” to take the image down off the website. The sponsor has said that he never intended the bill to be looked upon as an assault on newspapers or what is being called the “legitimate media.”

Attorneys with clients who had their image plastered on those websites, accused of some minor violation, but having never been convicted of anything, argue though they are innocent until proven guilty, they become victims for life because of the fact the image is online and it can affect things such as employment opportunities or reputation in a community.

The problem is these types of legislation would restrict the image from all citizens, and not merely those out-of-state businesses and their websites.

There is no easy answer to that problem, but we do feel like the original bill is over reaching and a bit like going gnat hunting with an elephant gun.

Before any version of this or any legislation addressing the Open Meetings Act makes it to a vote in any state, we encourage all legislators to think about the reasons for government transparency.

The most basic and primary thing to consider is the fact all the business that government does is the people’s business.

All the records that government holds belong to the people.

The reason why is that we are constitutionally self-governed.

In fact, it is really an irony that there would even be a debate regarding whether any government record that is not privileged in the interest of national security, should ever be regarded as anything other than a public record.

Since government belongs to the governed, then all the records it holds — including mug shots — belong to the governed, citizens.

— Director Jim Zachary