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Mugshots Deserving of 'Non-Trivial' Privacy Considerations

By Jonathan R. Tung, Esq. | Last updated on

The Sixth Circuit effectively negated a 1996 ruling it had made which gave substantial media access to criminal defendants' mugshots taken during the booking process. But the decision was a tight one: 9-7.

Free press advocates were not happy with the decision, but they expressed a hope that the Supreme Court would review the issues of the case.

Access to Mugshots

The legal issue at bar was the level of access that ought to be granted to media outlets to suspects' mugshots before trial proceedings. The named plaintiff in the case was Detroit Free Press, which had challenged a U.S. Marshal's steadfast refusal to hand over booking photographs of four regional police officers who'd been indicted for conspiracy and corruption crimes.

The challenge cited FOIA, the federal act that generally grants public access to governmental records. But this theory ultimately did not pass muster with the en banc court. As we've pointed out in the past, there carve outs that largely denude the thrust of FOIA in many instances.

The ruling is precedential and authoritative in Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee.

The Internet Changes Everything

Judge Deborah Cook wrote for the majority and expressed an opinion that modern realities of the internet confer upon defendants a "non-trivial" privacy interest that they had not previously enjoyed in the past. In days before the internet, mugshots would appear in print media or on televisions sets but would disappear quickly and -- most likely -- forever. But the phrase "the internet is forever" seems to have currency in the Sixth Circuit.

The court expressed a willingness to revisit defendants in light of new realities. "A disclosed booking photo casts a long, damaging shadow over the depicted individual. In 1996, this court could not have known or expected that a booking photo could haunt the depicted individual for decades. Experience has taught us otherwise," judge Cook wrote.

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