MISSOULIAN EDITORIAL: Mugshots are public information

Missoulian, January 29, 2017

Last week the Montana House Judiciary Committee pulled the rug out from under police chiefs and news organizations who jointly supported a simple measure to clarify that booking photos are public information and should be treated as such. Unbelievably, the committee chair submitted a request to amend the bill to instead prohibit the release of these photos.

He did so despite the fact that no one spoke in opposition to the original bill at the hearing Jan. 18. And despite the fact that the intent of House Bill 236 is to at last provide the obvious answer to the question of whether the mugshots taken of suspects upon their arrest should be made available to the public.

For a long time, each county in Montana answered this question individually, leading to a situation in which mug shots were routinely released by some counties, such as Yellowstone, and routinely withheld in others, such as Missoula.

That changed in October 2015, when a district court case helped set a statewide precedent after the judge ruled that Park County was required to release the booking photo of a registered violent offender who was charged with aggravated assault and attempted deliberate homicide. Attorney General Tim Fox later referred to the ruling to explain his decision not to offer a new ruling in a Gallatin County case that also concerned booking photos.

For most county attorneys in Montana, as well as the state attorney general, that settled it: Mugshots would henceforth be released along with arrest records. Missoula County Attorney Kirsten Pabst was among these sensible souls; she immediately informed the Missoula County Sheriff’s Department that booking photos were to be treated as part of the arrest record and considered public criminal justice information. And for the past year, the Missoulian has published mugshots along with relevant crime stories.

Gallatin County, on the other hand, resisted the ruling and began insisting that anyone seeking access to mugshots should be required to file a motion and secure a court order – each and every time. So, although the issue was indeed settled for the most part, legislative clarification has been needed to make the law crystal clear to the lone holdouts.

Thus Rep. Frank Garner, a Republican from Kalispell, introduced a straightforward bill this legislative session to accomplish that clarification. The four-page bill is an easy read, and includes a simple addition to state statute clarifying that “booking photographs” are included in the definition of “initial arrest records,” meaning they are public information. Notably, the bill has the support of nearly every news organization in the state as well as the Montana Association of Police Chiefs.

However, the Judiciary Committee ignored this support and prepared amendments to the bill to prohibit the release of booking photos until after the person is convicted of a crime, with some limited exceptions. Chairman Alan Doane said he thinks the public release of booking photos is comparable to “revenge porn” and counter to the spirit of “innocent until proven guilty.”

But this reasoning makes no sense. Law enforcement officials often provide mug shots to news media when asking for the public’s help identifying or locating a suspect. What good would it be to wait to provide these photos until after the person is caught and convicted?

A photo doesn’t mean a suspect is guilty any more than an arrest report does. All it means is that an individual has been charged with a crime. Remember, a lot of people booked into the Missoula County Detention Facility are subsequently released on bail. People have the right to know who in their community has been arrested and what crimes they are being charged with as a matter of public interest and public safety, and to hold our criminal justice system accountable.

Mugshots are far and away the most accurate way to identify an individual. Providing only a suspect’s name can lead to community confusion if the name is a common one, as in John Smith or Jane Anderson. Eliminating the possibility of such confusion is precisely why booking photos are taken in the first place.

The original version of the bill should be passed out of committee for a full vote in the House without further complication. If the proposed amendments are made, however, the bill should be killed.