Lawmakers should think long and hard about the effects of restricting mugshots from public

Websites that publish mug shots of all arrested individuals and then charge for removal of the images, have angered both citizens and public officials across the nation, resulting in what could be viewed as a threat to open public records.

Some states have enacted legislation that would regulate the “extortion” tactics of websites such as mugshots.com, while others have moved to restrict the release of intake photos to all citizens and media. Some have started requiring a signed, sworn, statement from anyone acquiring a mug shot that they will not sell it or place it on a website that charges for removal.

A bill considered by the Georgia House of Representatives would exempt mug shots from the state’s Open Records Act.

In its original form, the bill would exempt intake photos, mug shots, of arrested people who have not been convicted of a crime from the state’s Open Records Act.

Obviously, and understandably, we oppose any erosion of the Open Records Act.

Public information should always remain public.

Attorney David Hudson, who has arguably done more to champion the cause of open government than anyone in Georgia, has correctly pointed out that major revisions to the Open Meeting Act, under the direction of the Attorney General’s Office, were ratified in 2012 and it hardly seems time to be revisiting, and weakening, its provisions.

The publication of mug shots can often be a valuable tool used by law enforcement to help catch dangerous people and help keep communities safe.

A mug shot in the local newspaper may help someone identify a person accused of violent crime or who may be a danger to children, after the suspect has been bonded out of jail and is awaiting trial. Homicides and even child predator cases can sometimes take months or years for the court to determine guilt or innocence.

While the proposed bill would not have prohibited the publication of a suspect’s name, age, address and the charges, sometimes the accused may be from another state and the age and address would simply not be enough to identify the accused.

A newspaper reader could see a photo of an accused child predator, however, and alert officials they saw the person lurking around a school or daycare, for example.

Placing the burden on local law enforcement to make the determination of when a mug shot should be published and when it should not be is most likely a burden of responsibility the authorities would rather not have placed on their shoulders.

Responsible newspapers and other media outlets make responsible decisions every day, and news judgment should be left to journalists, not to government.

Putting any branch of government in charge of what news can and cannot be published is a dangerous precedent and a potential threat to democracy.

Representative Brian Strickland, who authored the Georgia bill, has been very clear, however, that his intention in drafting the legislation is to retard websites such as mugshots.com that run every mug shot of every arrested person in almost every jurisdiction and then charges people a “ransom” to take the image down off the website.

He has also clearly said that he never intended the bill to be looked upon as an assault on newspapers or what is being called the “legitimate media.”

Strickland has been open, very approachable and very reasonable in every discussion that he has had regarding the bill.

He comes to the table as an attorney with clients who had their image plastered on those websites, accused of some minor violation, but having never been convicted of anything.

Though they are innocent until proven guilty, Strickland and others are saying they become victims for life because of the fact the image is online and it can affect things such as employment opportunities or reputation in a community.

We are sensitive to all of those things and understand where Strickland is coming from.

The problem is the original bill would restrict the image from all residents of Georgia, and not merely those out-of-state businesses and their websites.

There is no easy answer to that problem, but we do feel like the original bill is over reaching and a bit like going gnat hunting with an elephant gun.

Strickland has proven himself to be a very thoughtful and careful legislator and has shown a spirit of compromise.

We are glad to see him tweaking the bill, freely discussing it, considering the opposition and trying to look at its deeper implications.

Before any version of this or any legislation addressing the Open Meetings Act makes it to the floor of the House, we encourage all legislators to think about the reasons for government transparency.

The most basic and primary thing to consider is the fact all the business that government does is the people’s business.

All the records that government holds belong to the people.

The reason why is that we are constitutionally self-governed.

In fact, it is really an irony that there would even be a debate regarding whether any government record that is not privileged in the interest of national security, should ever be regarded as anything other than a public record.

Since government belongs to the governed, then all the records it holds — including mug shots — belong to the governed, citizens.

— Director Jim Zachary

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