Mug shots are a useful tool for police departments across the globe. They enable officers to have an image of anyone who has been accused of a crime that shows not only their face from multiple angles, but also the person’s height. But just because they are useful for police records doesn’t mean that they should be shared online for anyone in the world to see -especially considering mug shots are taken of people before they have been charged with a crime. This is why California recently passed a law prohibiting police departments from sharing these images on their social media accounts.
The Problem With Posting Mug Shots on Social Media
When police share an image of a wanted sex offender who is suspected of abducting a young child, there is unarguably a benefit to the public safety. But when police social media accounts start sharing mug shots on a regular basis, particularly as a form of public entertainment with a weekly theme like “Wanted Wednesdays,” “Turn Yourself In Thursdays” or “Felony Fridays,” the benefit to the public is less pronounced, especially if the crime is a low-level, non-violent offense.
The minimal benefit to the public from these types of social media posts is certainly not equal to the potential problems faced by those in the mug shots. It’s not uncommon for those with their mug shots shared online to lose their jobs, be harassed by vigilantes, suffer damage to personal relationships and more. Again, this may be a worthwhile trade off for those considered to be an immediate and real danger to public safety, but when the person has been accused of a crime like a probation violation, missing a court date, shoplifting or other minor, non-violent offense, it’s simply unacceptable to put the suspect’s safety and reputation in danger.
This is particularly true, given that people featured in mug shots have not yet been convicted of a crime. In fact, it violates their due process by publicly punishing and shaming the suspect of a crime before he or she has even had a chance to fight the charges.
To make matters worse, police departments rarely remove these posts, even after those featured in them have been cleared of a crime or served their time after being convicted. Having a mug shot featured on a police social media account can continue to affect a person’s ability to make positive personal connections, find housing, obtain a good job and more.
A Real Life Example
The LA Times documents the story of Matthew Jacques, who had a warrant issued for his arrest after he missed a few DUI classes. He went to court and resolved the matter, only to have the Manhattan Beach Police Department post his mug shot on their social media accounts eight days later, claiming he was a wanted man. Almost immediately, he was identified and his place of work was posted in the comments. Jacques called out of work and he was fortunate as vigilantes started appearing at the bar where he worked.
Eventually, the police department updated the post by writing nothing more than “**UPDATE** Mr. Jacques cleared his warrant. Thank you”. Jacques then sued the city and police department for defamation. The matter was settled fifteen months later for an undisclosed sum and only then did the department remove his wanted sign from online. In the meanwhile, Jacques lost his job for fear of retaliation from vigilantes.
AB 1475: The New California Law Against Police Mug Shot Sharing
The new law prohibits police from sharing most mug shots of non-violent offenders on social media accounts. Police can also pose mug shots of people who are considered fugitives or imminent threats to public safety, if the photo could help locate and detain the suspect, or if there are “exigent circumstances.”
Even with these exemptions, AB 1475 is being highly praised by the ACLU, California Public Defenders Association and private defense attorneys around the state. These groups are united in their agreement that publishing mugshots online is a method of punishing those not yet found guilty and could even result in a biased jury.
Although the law does not require police to remove previously posted mug shots of those who were accused of non-violent crimes, it does require the police to remove images of those found not guilty, who had their records sealed, or those who had a conviction dismissed, pardoned or expunged.
A Change in Perspective on Mug Shots
Long ago, it wasn’t uncommon for newspapers to publish the names of people who had checks bounce at local businesses. But that form of public shaming didn’t help people add money to their bank accounts and didn’t stop people from bouncing checks, all it did was embarrass low income members of the community and those who made a simple mistake with their finances.
When newspapers share the names and mug shots of those who have been accused, but not convicted, of a low-level crime serves a similar purpose. There is no benefit to the community to know that a non-violent offender missed a court date, got arrested for shoplifting or the like. In fact, in many cases, the news story is simply a form of entertainment, in “dumb criminal” or “Florida Man” stories, for example.
That’s why the Associated Press recently announced that they will no longer share the names or mug shots of those accused of low-level crimes.
More Changes Need to be Made
While it is good that the Associated Press has announced that it will stop publishing this information, that does not mean news outlets everywhere have agreed to the change. Often the arrest of a person ends up on social media because the police disclose arrests to the media.