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Bob Lonsberry

Should Mug Shots Be Kept Private?

 

In New York, you may soon have to kiss mug shots good bye.

A powerful Republican in the Senate has paired with a powerful Democrat in the Assembly to introduce legislation forbidding police or prosecutors from releasing booking photographs until such time as the accused is convicted of the crime in question.

That means that you won’t see the mug shot of the guy who committed last night’s murder until he’s convicted at trial in a year and a half.

And by then, nobody is going to care.

The motivation, according to sponsors, is to protect people from mug-shot websites that warehouse and publicize the potentially embarrassing pictures. The oft-repeated but seldom-documented story is that innocent people are arrested, acquitted and yet their mug shots are still embarrassingly available – including from sites that charge high fees to delete the photos.

I’ve never met anyone that’s happened to.

But the politicians in question swear it’s a big threat.

In actuality, it is they who are the threat – to government transparency, open courts and the freedom of the press.

In short, since the creation of booking photographs, they have been public documents in New York. They were first published by newspapers, then broadcast on television news and now featured on the Internet.

The press – electronic or ink on paper – has a long tradition of access to mug shots and the people – the folks who read the newspaper or watch the evening news – have a long tradition of seeing these mug shots disseminated.

And now the politicians want to change that, they want to extinguish those rights.

The people should resist that.

It is an encroachment of government power on the freedoms and practices of the people and the press.

Further, it goes against the centuries-old tradition of open courts. From before the founding of the American Republic, free courts have relied on openness – and the public scrutiny that openness allows – as a protection against improper prosecution or persecution of the people by the government.

The doings of the criminal justice system are done in the open air so that any taint or corruption can be detected and rooted out.

A very important part of that is the public identification of the accused. The interests of both the accused and the public at large are advanced by the public identification of those who are arrested or ordered to trial.

Before photography, that public identification was name and address. Since photography and the modern press, that public identification has included a mug shot.

Now New York – a state that foolishly and unfortunately bans most cameras from its courtrooms – wants to throw the cloak of government secrecy around the best identifier of the criminally accused.

What would the impact of that be?

Your evening news would look a lot different. So would your morning newspaper. The newly accused and arrested rapist, child molester, murderer, arsonist and embezzler will be hidden from public scrutiny. Their identity will be protected, but your community will not.

At “The Times of Wayne County,” there is a good illustration of that. Since the paper’s founding 25 years ago, its practice has been to publish the mug shots of every person arrested in the county for misdemeanor or felony crimes. Those weekly mug shots have become part of the culture of that place. The embarrassment associated with them has proven a disincentive to crime.

The pictures have also solved crime.

In one recent incident, an anonymous rapist was apprehended when his victim recognized his booking picture in the paper for an unrelated arrest.

With no mug shot, that rape would not have been solved, that rapist would still be on the street.

There is also a demographic aspect to the dissemination of mug shots. Some civil rights activists argue against them, claiming they reinforce stereotypes about non-whites, while other civil rights activists argue for them, claiming they help demonstrate race-based enforcement actions.

Either way, they are part of modern life.

There is SmokingGun.com, there are any number of celebrity mug shots, there are the cheap little newspapers that are nothing but mug shots. And every night on the evening news, we see who is accused of what large crime in our community.

And the legislature proposes taking that away.

What we are now and have always been entitled to, the government wants to take away. It wants to slam the door on public access. It wants to shut the visual news media out of the criminal justice system even more.

And that’s not right.

It’s not about privacy, it’s about freedom.

And in this country we’re supposed to err on the side of freedom.

Sadly, the New York state legislature abandoned that trait long years ago.

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