There’s a chance the new mugshot law was a wash

If I were into gambling, I’d be willing to bet it’s going to take about 48 hours for websites like Mugshots.com to work around the new mugshot law, which went into effect today.

Essentially, they’ll just rebuild their web scrapers to target media websites to scoop up mugshots en masse, rather than gather them from individual law enforcement agencies. That is, if they haven’t done it already.

Starting today, if you want to get a copy of a mugshot, you need to have a notarized affidavit on file with the sheriff’s department that swears to that fact. Sure, it’s a little paperwork, but we in the news are happy to do it if it means our jobs won’t be made more difficult.

For example: My employer is in the process of following the letter of the law to make sure we can still get mugshots from 10 county sheriff’s departments when we need them. See how convenient state legislators have made it for mugshots.com to get all those mugshots from one place instead of 10? While my newspaper doesn’t post every single mugshot online, it’s easy enough for other sites to take the photos that do make it to the newspaper’s website.

Apparently, though, Brian Strickland (R-McDonough) and the bill’s co-sponsors don’t know how the internet works. The law amends the state’s Open Records Act to curb companies from charging to remove mugshots in an effort to stint profiteering off of the mugshots themselves. That would be great, but charging for removal isn’t how companies like Mugshots.com make their money (advertising works much better).

It’s also important to note that the second a photo — any photo — is uploaded to the web, it’s immediately picked up by any number of other sites, aggregators, search engines, image hosts, etc. It would be pretty difficult to prove that, in those cases, the organization that legally obtained a copy of the photo knowingly passed it on to a third party, but people who have found themselves on the inside of a jail cell shouldn’t expect this law to automatically protect their reputation. 

The amendment also says it’s illegal to charge to remove mugshots from publications. Print publications. Like newspapers. We’re still scratching our heads about that one, and so far I’ve been unable to find a good deal on a time machine.

It’s a slippery slope to toss around amendments to the state’s sunshine laws like this without fully understanding the implications or the loopholes that could easily allow your intended target a workaround.

It gives the impression the legislation is just for show. (This is where I should mention it’s the first bill written by Rep. Strickland to be signed into law.)

While this law could have been much, much worse, it took a lot of work to lessen the blow and convince state leaders that it’s in everyone’s best interests to protect access to mugshots, despite shady companies that exploit that access. (The public information officer for one local police department told me back in February that preventing access before conviction altogether would have been “catastrophic.”)

We’re keeping an eye on how media outlets and other media organizations handle the new law, and how it’s treated by the law enforcement community. Let me know your experience by emailing georgiatransparency@gmail.com.

– Kelsey Cochran

 

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