Ending access to mug shots not the answer
One of the best-read parts of the paper is the police log. People are interested in whether crime is happening near where they live or work. People, also, are frankly curious about whether they know anyone who has been arrested.
In recent years, with the advent of the web, businesses have begun to capitalize on that interest, posting batches of mug shots of people who have been arrested, and then charging those arrested who want it scrubbed from the site. The practice is mercenary.
In the age of Google, being arrested creates vastly greater complications than people faced 20 years ago. It is almost impossible to have your name disassociated from an arrest, even if you were innocent, and charges were dropped.
Take, for instance, Lewis James Little, who called police to report a body in the middle of the road. Durham police arrived and ended up arresting and charging Little, who was a college student, in connection with a nearby break-in. Because he tried to be a Good Samaritan, Little sat in jail for a month for a crime in which he had absolutely no role. Little told WRAL in February that he is embarrassed that anyone who plugs his name into a search engine will see his mug shot and articles about his arrest. “I feel ashamed about it, because I don’t want to be known like that,” he told the news outlet. “It’s up there, and there’s no taking it back.”
We are sympathetic to people in Little’s situation, but don’t see how making arrest mug shots confidential will resolve the issue, as the General Assembly is trying to do through a provision in Senate Bill 493, also known as the 2014 Regulatory Reform Act. The provision would create restrictions on how photos of people who have been charged but not yet convicted, can be used.
There are exceptions in the measure that would allow for disclosure. If the person is charged with a felony, convicted or if law enforcement officials believe releasing a photo will help keep the public safe, they may release it.
Making arrest mug shots confidential puts us on a slippery slope. Will concealing names of those arrested by next? Could suspects ask to have their mug shots released in cases where they accuse law enforcement of brutality? Conversely, could law enforcement officials release mug shots to help refute claims of brutality?
Limiting public access is not the solution.
We do hope the legislature will take another look, though, at a provision in an earlier budget bill that has been dropped. It would have restricted companies from asking for payment to have people’s mug shots removed from their websites. That seems much higher ground to stand on than cutting off access to mug shots altogether.