Mug Shots Live on – Even for the Not Guilty

BY DIANE DIMOND

When the suspect of the Christchurch, New Zealand, mass shooting was led into a courtroom, photographers captured his shackled image. The judge then ordered that the face of Brenton Harris Tarrant, accused of the worst mass murder in New Zealand history, be blurred from public view to ensure he gets a fair trial.

What a quaint judicial order in this media-saturated day and age.

Once the defendant’s name was revealed in court, enterprising reporters simply rushed to social media and almost instantaneously found photographs of him. His face and political affiliations — posted by him for all to see — were transmitted to the world within a matter of minutes.

That said, the New Zealand judge’s order came from a thoughtful place, the idea that everything possible must be done by the court to ensure a fair and impartial trial. That is a good thing.

It makes me wonder about America’s justice system. We profess an allegiance to blind justice, yet steps are taken that can automatically taint the accused. Suspects are publicly displayed for television cameras, and their mug shots are widely distributed. It’s a paradox. We say “innocent until proven guilty,” but how many innocent people wear handcuffs or take pictures with an arrest number scrawled underneath?

Many police departments proudly post their mug shots online or regularly take out full-page ads of them in local newspapers. It can be a counter to claims of racial profiling and a way to show the citizenry that officers are on the job. The media obviously likes the transparency. Automatic release of mug shots adds to the information they can gather and disseminate to the public. And these are good things, too.

But is our system fair?

Think of the mug shot of the neighbor girl with her smudged tears and mascara who was caught driving under the influence, or the one of your friend who was falsely accused and looks like a deer in the headlights. They were photographed on the worst day of their lives, and their mug shots underscore the problem. Long after their cases are over, even if the suspects are fully cleared, the unflattering images can live on in digital perpetuity. This is a bad thing.

Several internet-based scavenger companies have popped up to capitalize on the humiliation. The operators of Mugshots.com are due in a California court later this month to answer charges of extortion and money laundering. Their lucrative business combs through police and sheriff’s department websites and then posts the photos and arrest details online. If people want their mug shot removed, they are directed to a companion site that charges thousands of dollars to “de-publish” the post. California authorities say the firm has collected more than $2 million from more than 5,700 people all across the country.

“Those who can’t afford to pay into this scheme to have their information removed pay the price when they look for a job, housing, or try to build relationships with others,” Attorney General Xavier Becerra said. “This is exploitation, plain and simple.” Imagine how a mug shot could haunt mascara girl as she applies for college.

In Pennsylvania federal court, the defendant isn’t a company but a government entity. A class action suit is ongoing against the Bucks County Correctional Facility for its policy of posting mug shots on the website and leaving them there permanently. The lead plaintiff is a man whose arrest record was expunged, but his mug shot lived on online for years until the pending litigation forced a change. Some court watchers believe that if the court rules against the county, it could open the way for tens of thousands of convicts to file claims.

Sociologist Sarah Esther Lageson has studied the explosive impact of digitally shared mug shots for a decade. Citing the exploitation by companies that make money from publishing the photos, Dr. Lageson recently wrote a column titled “It’s Time for the Mug-Shot Digital Economy to Die.” It is easy to agree that those who extort money through mug shots should be stopped. It’s not freedom of speech; it is exploitation. It is also clear that permanently displayed mug shots can needlessly disgrace those who were found not guilty or those who served their time and are working hard to move on to a better life.

Yet governments have a responsibility to protect and serve citizens, and many will say publishing mug shots informs the public about the character of those around them and helps those seeking background information on strangers who come into their lives.

As was proven in the New Zealand case, blurring a face or withholding a mug shot doesn’t mean the public is kept in the dark. It just means that to fully inform the public, reporters have to work a different way. With today’s plethora of social media, it is not that difficult to find photos of the accused.

In fact, they probably posted the photos in the digital public square themselves. As everyone knows, what’s posted on Facebook pretty much stays on Facebook forever.

Rockland County resident Diane Dimond is a journalist, author, and a regular contributing correspondent for the Investigation Discovery channel. To find out more about Dimond, visit her website at www.dianedimond.com