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Reporters Kill Hopes for a Florida Mugshot Law

Jean Dion • May 08, 2014

When clients come to us for help with a mugshot problem, most of their questions begin with one word: Why?

"Why is my mugshot online when I was never convicted of a crime?"

"Why do police departments release these photos in the first place?"

"Why is it legal for these sites to ask for my money?"

Why? Why? Why?

The answers to these questions can be individualized, of course. But in general, most of these questions involve personal freedoms and public reporting.

                                                       Stressed out

On one side of this argument stands a person who is appearing in a mugshot website (or as I call this person: the client). On the other side is an army of reporters who both want and need open access to law enforcement documents so they can do their job properly.

Reporters might not seem very powerful, I know, but recently, they spoke up about a mugshot law in Florida, and that law died in committee just a few days ago. Here's what happened.

Florida Mugshot Fail

The mugshot laws bouncing around in Florida courts started small. Legislators tried to keep Florida mugshot websites from copying photos and asking people to pay for the photos to be removed. The early versions of the law had only a few lines of content. But, in time, the bills got bigger and the rules included got more and more stringent, and reporters began to take notice. (I covered this issue pretty extensively in a previous blog post, and that's worth a read, if you'd like to see how this legislation was developed and how it evolved.)

When legislators pulled the bills into committee meetings, so they could work through their concerns and really come up with rules and regulations that everyone could agree on, they hit a number of snags. Specifically, they began to receive letters of protest from a number of journalists, including those working for Northwest Florida Daily News. They wanted these bills to stop, and they wanted them to stop right now.

The Journalist Perspective

This isn't an unfamiliar position. For example, representatives from the Detroit Free Press have been trying for years to gain access to a series of mugshots taken of people who were charged in federal court. Recently, this paper won a case about the issue, and the attorney on the case outlined the four reasons that papers want open access to mug shots. Those reasons include:

                                                             journalist

1. To uncover evidence of racial profiling. If everyone arrested is of the same race or ethnicity, or if specific crimes seem to be applied exclusively to people of one race or ethnicity, that could be signs of a problem the paper might want to cover.

2. To spot any police brutality. Mugshots of people with black eyes, bloody noses or stitches might indicate that the police are beating people during the arrest process. That's something, again, that reporters might want to cover.

3. To spot people who may have committed other crimes. Sometimes, people who are arrested have gotten away with other crimes in the past. Reporters might want to place a face in the paper, so they can hear from other potential victims.

4. To help clear the names of people who are falsely accused of a crime. If the face doesn't match the name, reporters might spot that through mugshots, but the issue could be buried if only text is used.

Editors of the Northwest Florida Daily News echo these statements in an editorial they published when they heard the mugshot law in their state failed in committee. Here, they said that the legislation could be considered an overreach and an overreaction, and that it was an "… inappropriate, sunshine-blocking legislation" that shouldn't have been passed.

When I read through these reasons for open-access laws, they seem reasonable to me. In fact, it seems wrong to block access to the data, as it looks like journalists make good use of it. But unfortunately, if reporters can access mugshots, the mugshot sites can do the same. In other words, as long as reporters side with mugshot website administrators, public photos will stay public.

A Few Talking Points

I've said this before, but I think that legislation is simply not the right answer for a mugshot problem. Reporters need these mugshots in order to do their work, and they're willing to speak up in order to keep the access to the tools they need to keep the public informed. In all of the years I've been watching this issue, I have yet to see a set of mugshot laws that don't offend reporters. I'm not sure that this kind of bill can even be written.

So for now, people who appear will need to work with companies like ours that can remove the mugshots and bring balance back into life.