The images are a staple of many a news Web site: mug shots of people arrested for crimes big and small. Local TV stations broadcast them, The Post prints them, and there’s even a Web site — Mugshots.com — dedicated to publishing them. It’s hard not to marvel at the blank faces staring back at you and wonder what those people were thinking.
In the District, though, you’d be hard-pressed to find almost any mug shots at all. For decades, neither the U.S. attorney for the city nor local police and prosecutors have released the images to the press or public; they are shared only when a wanted suspect remains at-large or the person has been convicted, and even then there are times a mugshot won’t see the light of day. Regionally, the District is an outlier — Virginia and Maryland make mug shots available to the press, and those weekly mug-shot slideshows you may see on your favorite local news site are generally drawn from the jurisdictions around the city.
Because of the District’s practices, the first glimpse that most D.C. residents got of the five men convicted of the 2010 South Capitol Street shooting came only after they were found guilty. Until that point, they were merely names in court documents. The U.S. attorney’s office has been even more strict, refusing to release the booking photographs of former D.C. Council members Kwame Brown and Harry Thomas Jr.; we’ve also been denied the chance to see the mug shots of the city legislators arrested during 2011 D.C. voting rights demonstrations.
That could soon change. In January, D.C. Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) introduced legislation that would require police to release mug shots to anyone who requests them; a person would have to do little more than pay a nominal fee for the copy of the photo. (Photos of underage suspects would not be released.) Cheh, like many advocates for the public release of mug shots, said that releasing them could help serve the larger goal of maintaining public safety; residents could see a picture and recognize a repeat offender, she pointed out.
As a journalist, I find myself torn between the desire to have as much information as possible about criminal suspects and the sad realization that we’ve come to treat mug shots as entertainment, a voyeuristic pleasure that doesn’t give nearly enough credit to the fact that an arrest does not always equal a conviction. In many ways, the publication and dissemination of these photographs creates tension between those two constitutional concerns — the public’s right to know and the suspect’s right to be presumed innocent — that isn’t easy to resolve. (Full disclosure: I was arrested for a misdemeanor in college and pleaded guilty; I’m sure there’s a mug shot of me somewhere out there.)
The District’s policy is rooted in a desire to err on the side of the suspect. In 1966, a U.S. Appeals Court ruling found that popular perception of the mug shot was such that “the inference that the person involved has a criminal record, or has at least been in trouble with the police, is natural, perhaps automatic.” A year later, a report commissioned by the D.C. Board of Commissioners found that in an era of political protest, the wide dissemination of a mug shot could endanger the livelihood of a person who was doing little more than exercising his or her First Amendment rights. A 1970 Justice Department policy statement similarly noted that the release of mug shots “generally [tend] to create dangers of prejudice without serving a significant law enforcement function.”
And that was in the era of newsprint and nightly news. In today’s world, mug shots can become a matter of digital record for the entire world to see. And as with just about everything on the Internet, someone is trying to cash in. Mugshots.com and other such sites charge hundreds of dollars to remove a picture. A violent criminal who happens to have money can pay to make his mug shot go away, while someone of lesser means and a minor, unfortunate run-in with the law would remain on the site in perpetuity.
The publisher of the site, of course, defends the service: “Dissemination of this information helps in alerting the public about misguided, unscrupulous, and dangerous individuals within our midst.” There are certainly cases where this is true, and one recent example from the District demonstrates it.
In August, D.C. police arrested Oscar Mauricio Cornejo-Pena for sexually assaulting a woman in Dupont Circle. Despite admitting to being linked to at least eight other similar public assaults, he was released to a halfway house pending further court hearings. In writing about the case, I found myself without the benefit of an image that could have helped alert residents to his presence. He was known to play chess in Dupont Circle, and he could have been recognized had he returned. Journalists were left to rely on Facebook for an image. He eventually pleaded guilty to four counts of misdemeanor sexual abuse and was sentenced to 90 days in prison. He now stands to be deported.
Cheh’s bill could next move to the full council, where it should receive a full vetting. Legislators should widely explore both sides of the issue, debating the merits and drawbacks to turning back a policy that has been in place for 45 years. D.C. officials could end up reaping what they sow: The mug shots from their arrests at those D.C. voting rights protests two years ago could quickly become public, after all. (When I spoke to Cheh, she was amused with the possibility of her mug shot coming to light.)
Of course, this isn’t only about what the government does. Should the bill pass, we in the media have our own role to play. Simply saying that someone is presumed innocent when we run a slideshow of mug shots isn’t enough; rather, we should follow cases far along enough to report on whether a person who was arrested is eventually convicted.
The writer is editor of DCist.