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Friday, July 27, 2012

Internet mugshot sites become a hot topic

Websites that post police booking photos of arrestees are both commonplace and popular these days. And they're drawing a lot of criticism in the press. For example, Portland's Skanner newspaper, which has rarely met a criminal defendant it didn't like, weighs in here; the national ABA Journal, which tends to look at life from a lawyer business development perspective, has a piece (in which we are quoted) here. We've written about the Portland version of this type of site before, but the rising controversy calls for a fresh look.

The basic operation of these internet pages is simple. Many local police agencies post photos of folks they've recently arrested, with names, ages, and charges. Not all do -- we can't find mugshots from Washington State on the internet, for example -- and those that do don't leave them up for long. Usually the photos are taken down shortly after the suspect in question is released from custody. But once something's on the internet, it's public forever, and private website operators harvest these photos and ID's, post them on their own pages, and don't take them down when the arrestee is released.

The accused don't like that.

Now, what's often overlooked is that this is not necessarily an internet problem. If you hang around your local convenience store at all -- and who doesn't love killing time listening to the slushies ooze and watching yesterday's hot dogs go 'round? -- you know that there are hard copy mugshot tabloids that sell for a buck or two. If people weren't buying those, they wouldn't be there. But the internet is so much more pervasive -- the arrestees hate seeing themselves on the screen way more than in some paper.

So what's wrong with this picture? For the most part, we applaud the posting of these photos on the internet. Information is either public, or it isn't. The fact that the internet makes public information more readily available than ever doesn't change that principle. Public information is public. Those photos are the taxpayers' property, and that means we all have the right to see them, and know what the subject of the photo was arrested for.

But there are several problems with the way the dissemination of this information has evolved. First, the private operators who run the mugshot sites have the ability to filter whose mugshot gets seen, and whose doesn't. The last time we checked, the Portland operator doesn't post mugshots of people arrested for prostitution and related crimes, because he thinks they are victimless. That immediately diminishes any claim to his being a gateway to public information.

Second, and this is probably the most significant problem, arrestees are innocent until proven guilty, and many of them are not convicted. Yet their mugshots live on, along with the original charges, in perpetuity on the web. That paints them in a potentially false light.

Third, and this is the most maddening, the mugshot site operators, or other shadowy figures whose connection to those operators isn't clear, will remove anyone's mugshot, innocent or guilty, for a fee. Now they're profiting from their selectivity, which removes all vestiges of legitimacy as a public information outlet.

So what's the right answer? Make the website operators display the mugshots of all arrestees for all crimes? Make the website operators display the outcome of everyone's case? Criminalize charging a fee for removing a mugshot? All of those solutions would appear to our untrained eye to have serious First Amendment issues. So should we stop publishing mugshots altogether? Washington State doesn't show them.

Neither does Kim Jong-un.

To us, the only sane solution is for government to expand greatly what it's publishing about arrests on the internet. Have the police and the jails leave all the mugshots up forever, but with the disposition of each case clearly displayed on the same page. Sure, that's expensive, but it's the only way to stop the game-playing without making arrest information secret.

You do not. Want. Secret. Arrests. (Any more than we may already have, anyway.)

An expanded system can be done. Heck, on our cell phone, we've got an app that lets us check anyone's criminal history; they even give us one search a month for free. Want to see Jefferson Smith's record of skipped court dates and driving while suspended? There's an app for that. And if Background Check can do it, so can the local cops.

If the county sheriffs had a permanent archive of arrests, mugshots, and final dispositions of cases, we'd all benefit. And the sleaziest of the mugshot site operators would be out of business in a short time. Anything short of that commitment is going to result in decades of lawsuits, and eventually less information about the criminal justice system being made available to the public. Neither of those outcomes is good.

Comments (5)

I agree wholeheartedly. This is definitely an obnoxious issue. Anybody can be arrested for anything, then be cleared and let go. But once the initial arrest is published that person's job and future may well be ruined. Sites that charge the accused a fee to take down their photo know this and are essentially blackmailing the innocent.

The important stuff is the actual records of fact, mugshots are pretty meaningless but are found so enticing for some reason. Make the names, charges, dispositions public, sure, but I don't see why we all need to be able to gawk at photographs of those accused of crimes. Washington's policy seems to wholly obviate all objections without much drawback.

It's always been away for me to see how my cousins are doing.

I would say that having a heinous charge like "forcible rape" or something attached to your name for life, despite the fact that you were never charged, would tend to undercut the whole "innocent until proven guilty" thing. Can you imagine having that attached to your name, online, and then applying for something like a teaching job?

Goodbye expungements.

Just because it's public information doesn't necessarily mean it should always be easily accessible.

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