Mugshot Photographs and The Criminal Law

Mugshots are photographs police take after booking and arrest. The term comes from the slang use of “mug” for face. Following arrest, a criminal suspect is booked, fingerprinted, and photographed for identification purposes. While the booking officer takes down personal information about the suspect and confiscates their personal belongings, the mug shot identifies and records the arrestee. Victims and investigators use the mugshot to identify the perpetrator of a crime or locate a fugitive. But since most crimes are misdemeanors and nearly 1 in 3 Americans has a criminal record, should the mugshot be used for commercial ransom?

Why a Mugshot?

The mug shot is actually a set of photos and includes identifying information, such as height, date, and references to the alleged crime. It may follow the person through their time incarcerated or update upon release and return to society. The photos are maintained on law enforcement websites as public record. In the digital age, these photographs are reproduced by members of the public for publication on websites that collect mugshots, not unlike the late 1800s mugshot galleries, large leather-bound books of mugshots with the criminal story and personal information about the photographed person, which the police put on public display. The current mugshot identification system, attributed to a 19th Century French photographer, consists of a series of photos measuring head and arm length, as well as various angles of the face. Previously, mugshots typically remained in police files.

The Mugshot Business

Today, mugshots taken from police and FBI websites are widely published on commercial websites that charge people to remove them. Though the mugshots record the booking, they do not tell the story of whether someone was innocent or guilty. Many people are arrested and have the charges dismissed or are later found innocent. Mugshots are publicly perceived as an indictment of guilt, tantamount to branding the “mugs” as criminals. Internet searches bring up these mugshots, which could mean lost job opportunities or college admissions to those identified in the photographs.

Freedom of Speech or Extortion?

Recent state legislature outlawing charges for mugshot removal from websites have emerged to address the injustice of those who were innocent or paid their dues to society and now suffer stigma and financial loss due to web-wide mugshots. Those against such legislation argue that mugshot information should remain public as they are an important source for journalists conveying information to the public and a matter of free speech. Others argue that publishing mugshots goes against the principles of justice and their constitutional rights: innocent until proven guilty, redemption, rehabilitation, and privacy. The public release of mugshots policies differ throughout the states with some states claiming mugshots are open records. For other states, public release is up to agency discretion, while others allow mugshot expungement, not to mention the 18 states that ban sites charging removal fees.

Police department arrest logs are public records under the Freedom of Information Act as are court records. And so long as they are not illegal, major search engines, like Google, are not obligated to shut down what some consider extorting sites. Meanwhile, these sites potentially ruin people’s lives, preventing them from finding work, dating, getting loans, renting apartments, or going to college. A criminal record can reduce someone’s chances of employment by half. Each year, more state legislators are recognizing the economic drag resulting from these questionable practices.

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Disclaimer: Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication at the time it was written. It is not intended to provide legal advice or suggest a guaranteed outcome as individual situations will differ and the law may have changed since publication. Readers considering legal action should consult with an experienced lawyer to understand current laws they may affect a case.

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