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Should You Smile For a Mugshot?

By Richard Dahl on August 22, 2022 4:44 PM

In June, a Texas taco shop announced an unusual trade for anyone who's been arrested: Bring in your booking photo and you can get a free order of tacos — but only if you're smiling in the mugshot.

The shop's owners say they are not encouraging crime, but offering a message of peace and love because "everyone deserves a second chance in life."

Hmm.

Second chances are indeed good things. But a smiling mugshot is almost certainly a terrible way to provide it.

Every criminal defense lawyer we can find who has addressed the subject of mugshot facial expressions says the same thing: Do. Not. Smile.

Notorious Examples

Other than free tacos, only bad things can result from a smiling mugshot.

  • Angenette Welk-Missett's beaming mugshot certainly did not help when a judge sentenced her to 11 years in prison in 2019 on charges of DUI manslaughter for the death of a 60-year-old woman in Marion County, Florida.
  • A Missouri woman, 32-year-old Brittany Wilson, looks positively exuberant in a booking photo taken last December after police took her into custody after allegedly stabbing her boyfriend to death with a sword. That photo is probably not going to help.
  • Nassau County, Florida, Commissioner Aaron Bell's booking photo is that of a very happy guy and it's not doing him any favors now. He was arrested on suspicion of DUI in June, and now his political opponents have placed his beaming mugshot on a website. His smiling mug may not make his legal situation any worse, but it can't be helping his political prospects.
  • Former Minneapolis police officer Kim Potter is serving a two-year sentence for manslaughter after she mistook her Glock handgun for a Taser and fatally shot a motorist. When she arrived at prison to begin her sentence, she was all smiles for a mugshot that quickly went viral. It may not affect her sentence, but it probably won't be helpful when she resumes normal life.

Americans' Obsession With Smiling

People smile at booking cameras for a variety of reasons. Some are drunk or high, some suffer from mental illness, and some smile because they think their arrest is absurd.

But many are inexplicable, which leads us to ponder the simple fact that we Americans may be the smiliest people on earth. Not only do we smile more than people in nearly every other country, we do it with more vigor; the bigger the smile, the better. So when a camera is pointed in our direction, our instinct is to smile.

So, does that mean we are happy? Not necessarily.

For the last 10 years, the Gallup World Poll has compiled an annual World Happiness Report in which the U.S. never ranked higher than 14th (in 2017). This year, we are 16th.

So maybe we're sort of happy. But does that explain our fondness for beaming, toothy smiles? After all, look at Finland, the happiest country on the planet for four consecutive years in the Gallup poll, where the people are notoriously somber and introverted. As one Finn writer summarized last year, "If happiness were measured in smiles, Finnish people would be among the most miserable in the world."

Maybe Our American Optimism Is to Blame

In other words, the connection between happiness and smiling faces isn't as solid as we might think. According to one theory, Americans smile more because we have always been a country with lots of immigrants, and a smile is a nonverbal way to say, "I mean no harm." Another is that Americans just tend to be optimistic, and a smile has come to mean you're with the program.

But, back to mugshots.

Maybe you thought you were displaying your true-blue American spirit when you smiled at the booking camera. Maybe you thought that would be helpful.

But let's say you end up in court, and a jury will decide your fate. Imagine their reaction when a clever prosecutor gives them Exhibit A, your beaming mugshot, and asks, "Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, does this look like a remorseful person?"

Never smile for a mugshot. We rest our case.

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We Americans love to smile. We even smile when we are arrested and have our mugshots taken. But is a smiling mugshot a good idea? FindLaw puts the subject into focus.

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