ATLANTA — It will now be illegal for publications such as Mugshots.com to obtain arrest booking photos in Georgia, post them on websites and charge people to have them removed — and little damage was done to the state’s public records laws in the process.
Gov. Nathan Deal ratified HB 845 in his office Thursday.
Rep. Brian Strickland, who drafted the legislation, worked until the final days of the 2014 legislative session to get the bill passed.
“I was proud to stand by Gov. Deal as he signed HB 845 into law. This bill changes the way arrest images are released in Georgia and will prevent online companies from profiting on the backs of innocent Georgians,” Strickland said.
The new law requires anyone who requests a mug shot to submit a statement that the image will not be used on a website or in a publication that charges for removal.
Early drafts of the bill would have exempted mug shots from public disclosure under the state’s Open Records Act until an individual was actually convicted of a crime.
But when the state’s newspaper association and open government advocates raised concerns, Strickland altered the language to more specifically target Mugshots.com-type websites and not restrict what he called “the legitimate media.”
The Georgia Press Association, its Executive Director Robin Rhodes and General Counsel David Hudson worked with the lawmaker to find language that would allow newspapers, and other media, to continue to publish mug shots.
“Thanks to the Georgia Press Association for working with me in this effort to ensure that we drafted a bill that preserved the First Amendment rights of our press while letting these foreign online companies that operate under the guise as legitimate media know that they are not welcome in Georgia,” Strickland said at the bill signing.
“Because of the work that went into drafting this bill, HB 845 enjoyed rare unanimous passage in both the House and the Senate. In a political climate that sees the divide between political parties literally shutting down government’s ability to function, it is great to see Republicans and Democrats in Georgia come together on a great piece of legislation.”
Jim Zachary is the director of the Transparency Project of Georgia, editor of the Clayton News Daily and Henry Daily Herald, an active member of the Georgia Press Association and long-time open government advocate.
Zachary, who first approached Strickland with concerns about the original language in the bill said, “As open government advocates, concerned citizens and journalists, we obviously believe that nearly all government records should be public records and would resist any further erosion of Georgia’s open records and open meetings legislation. Brian was very receptive to those concerns and very reasonable in his approach to this legislation.”
While Zachary said placing a restriction on access to a public record is not preferred, exempting intake photos from public records would have been far worse.
“This was a balancing act,” he said. “Georgia’s newspapers are not in favor of the practices of Mugshots.com and similar websites. What they do is extortion. Rep. Strickland’s ability to compromise and have productive, open dialogue is how good government should work. In the end, he may not have gotten everything he wanted out of the bill and we may not have gotten everything we wanted, but we all got something that we could live with.”
Kelsey Cochran, journalist and co-founder of the Transparency Project of Georgia, said the earliest drafts of the bill would have had a “catastrophic” effect on the way public safety information is shared in Georgia.
“Reporters and police agencies alike rely on these images to disseminate crucial information to the public,” she said. “Any attempt to alter the laws made to protect that information should be watched closely. Thankfully, HB 845 was passed as an acceptable compromise.”
Sophia Andrade represents the cause group Reclaim Our Dignity that lobbied on behalf of the bill. Andrade, who said she was one of the many victims of the websites that post mug shots and charge for removal, testified in House hearings.
Thursday Andrade said, “The private mugshot industry has been a silent plague in our society for many years, but no more in the state of Georgia. HB 845 certainly renews our hope in the justice system as it has been dimmed for so many. Reclaim Our Dignity is so proud of Rep. Strickland for seeing the injustice, and his willingness to advocate for stiffer laws against private mug shot companies this past legislative session.”