Thursday, October 31, 2013

Mean Mugging: The Invincibility (and Integrity) of Mugshot Publishers

“Integrity, Accountability, Community.” This is the motto of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office. The Arizona law enforcement agency has a classy way of doing business. And nothing says “integrity” better than its website. Among the accomplishments listed there are:
  • spending less than 15 cents per inmate meal
  • using chain gangs, and
  • being “the only detention facility in the country” to have “2,000 convicts living in tents.”
But the coup de grĂ¢ce is the office’s “Mugshot of the Day!” contest. Discerning readers can not only vote for their favorites, but also check out the M.O.D. Leader Board. Personally, I’m pulling for that perp whose eyes have that profound look of despair. So funny! Who cares if that one is innocent! Just priceless. Don’t know which one I’m talking about? Good point. I guess they all kind of look that way . . . .

Score One for the Publishers

Where would people go for entertainment and delightfully vicious comment-posting if Maricopa County and third-party mugshot publishers hadn’t won their recent legal battle? (Speaking of classy, the sites that require arrestees to pay for removal of their photos really know how to make a buck.) Thankfully, a federal district judge recently ruled that these folks can continue to post booking photos with impunity. (Jamali v. Maricopa County, 2013 WL 5705422 (D. Ariz. Oct. 21, 2013).)

In his opinion, District Judge David G. Campbell held that the Constitution doesn’t bar the law enforcement practice of taking and publishing arrestee images. He invoked the government’s purpose of prisoner safe-keeping, escape prevention, and escapee identification. I must have missed the part where he explained how private companies profiting from mugshots through advertising and extortion promote law enforcement purposes. And the part where he explained how agencies who reduce the arrest process to schadenfreude advance public welfare.

A Balance to Be Struck?

There are, of course, legitimate reasons for mugshots and their proper display. Judge Campbell identified them. And there are bona fide First Amendment concerns any time courts block any of the many forms of “speech.”

But can’t we have at least some regulation of mugshot posters? Before you scoff and retort that the people whose images grace these sites got what they deserved, consider a couple points.

Innocent Defendants: They’re Really out There

Many people whom the police arrest turn out to be innocent. Take, for example, a former client. A court of law exonerated him of the sex crimes for which he was not only arrested, but also convicted and imprisoned. He was eventually able to get the government to remove him from its sex-offender registry, but there was nothing he could do about the third-party sites that wouldn’t extend this “courtesy.”

Even in less egregious cases, is it fair for someone who was arrested but never convicted to live with this kind of permanent electronic stain?

Second Chances

People make mistakes. Yes, they even commit crimes. But shouldn’t the sentence for the crime—and its reasonable consequences—be enough? I guess some believe that redemption and rehabilitation are pipe dreams. Why pass on the opportunity to laugh at these scumbags?

Maybe I’m being too harsh. Maybe, after all, the Maricopa Sheriff’s Office does it right. Almost directly under the images and names of its prisoners, there’s a nice little disclaimer about inmates who haven’t gone to trial being innocent until proven guilty. With that kind of thoughtfulness, who needs regulation?