Defending the use—and abuse—of mugshots

Screen Shot 2017-02-06 at 5.56.44 PMAn editorial in today’s Billings Gazette—in the print edition anyway; the online version for some reason is dated Feb. 3—made some good points about a bad bill.

As originally introduced, House Bill 236 would have made it explicit that jail booking photos—mugshots—are public information. Current law is not quite so clear, with the result that some law enforcement agencies have refused to release mugshots.

The bill was introduced by Rep. Frank Garner, a Kalispell Republican and former police chief, and it had the support of the Montana Association of Chiefs of Police. But then the House Judiciary Committee got its hands on the bill and amended it to do something else entirely.

The amended bill, which appears to be dead, would have kept mugshots private unless the person was convicted of a crime or release of the mugshot was ordered by a District Court judge. As I said, the Gazette made some good points about all this … but also some rather muddled ones.

One paragraph, for instances, reads: “The principle at stake is the public’s right to know what its law enforcement and courts are doing. The busy justice system in Yellowstone County generated more than 1,300 felony cases last year, plus many more misdemeanors. That’s a lot of mugshots.”

What is the chain of logic between the public’s right to know and the large volume of felony cases in Yellowstone County? It would have been quite enough to argue that mugshots are no more inherently invasive than having your name in the paper because you appear in court to be charged with a crime.

Also, Rep. Barry Usher, R-Billings, was quoted in the editorial as saying it is “double jeopardy” to have one’s mugshot published. That is complete nonsense and the Gazette should have said so.

The editorial was on firmer ground when it noted that Billings Police Chief Rich St. John said the posting of mugshots has helped solved crimes. That is a point that can’t be emphasized enough.

The use of mugshots also helps identify people charged with crimes in a way that mere type cannot do. You might think you know the 30-year-old John Smith charged with a felony—only to find out from the mugshot that this was another John Smith.

Almost all counties in Montana have been releasing mugshots to the media for decades. There is no good reason to suddenly change this policy and withhold public information from the public—and even less reason to try to change this policy by subverting a well-intentioned bill.

Having said all that, it is worth mentioning that the Gazette has not helped its own case by using mugshots as click bait. I don’t know exactly when the Gazette started running monthly roundups of mugshots, but it is a hard practice to defend.

It has nothing to do with the public’s right to know and everything to do with getting people to click through the extended gallery of monthly mugs—each click giving the Gazette another “page view” which which to justify its online advertising rates.

Let’s face it: the monthly mugshot galleries are like online freak shows, and the more tattoos, scars, drugged-out stares and atrocious haircuts the better. The public’s right to know, alas, is intimately bound up with the public’s right to gawk.

This is perfectly legal, and it is no business of the government to dictate what newspapers can do with public information. But just maybe, if the Gazette and other newspapers showed a little more restraint and a little more dignity, lawmakers would not be tempted to tinker with laws like this. 

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