Are all mugshots in the public domain?
October 19, 2005 6:46 PM   Subscribe

Does everyone who gets arrested have a mugshot taken of them, and must all mugshots be released to the public? Are there any restrictions on their use?

It seems to be "common knowledge" that mugshots are public records (that's what Wikipedia says) but can anyone give me some more detail on the laws that might govern this sort of thing? Are there restrictions on obtaining or using mugshots that don't apply to police reports, or vice versa?

[Yes, this is partially related to DeLay's pending arrest, but I've wondered about the specifics behind this stuff for a while now]
posted by thewittyname to Law & Government (21 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
As a side would one access a mugshot? I'd be kind of curious...
posted by amandaudoff at 6:50 PM on October 19, 2005

Best bet for celebrity/notorious mugshots is The Smoking Gun.
posted by Vidiot at 7:04 PM on October 19, 2005

Generally, works that government creates are in the public domain. But IANAL in the least. Most police departments and other law enforcement agencies will release mugshots to the press, just as they'd issue press releases.
posted by Vidiot at 7:04 PM on October 19, 2005

(And I've always wondered how on earth Martha Stewart managed to keep hers (or any video/pictures of her in handcuffs) from ever getting released.)
posted by Vidiot at 7:05 PM on October 19, 2005

Best answer: Vidiot,
Apparently the feds don't usually/easily release mugs like the local fuzz does. Policy varies by region it seems, at least according to E!, anyway.
posted by jikel_morten at 7:26 PM on October 19, 2005

I've been arrestd (and convicted) in the 'states twice (Iowa, fwiw). They took a mugshot of me the first time (I looked absolutely horrible) and they didn't bother taking one the second time (I had just gotten back from the hair stylist's). They were about 2 years apart.

I, too, have heard that mugshots are public access, and that the way to get them is to drop by the courthouse and request it. I did - but they just laughed at me, and when I pressed them on it, they just stonewalled me until they closed for the day (at some ridiculously early hour).
posted by PurplePorpoise at 7:28 PM on October 19, 2005

Best answer: Public records laws vary from state to state in the United States.

In southwest Washington, some people are cited and released instead of booked upon arrest. I don't think they always have their mug shots taken, but I'm pretty sure the law enforcement agencies can still draw up driver's license photos.

I can imagine some reasons why information surrounding an arrest might not be a public record right away. Most law enforcement agencies can circumvent public records laws by citing an ongoing investigation. Until they get a conviction, they can continue to make this claim, though technically if they aren't investigating anymore they shouldn't be able to.

If you want to get a copy of a mugshot, the steps you need to take will vary. Assuming that the person you're interested was arrested and booked at a local jail (as opposed to a federal facility), call county corrections office and ask how you can go about getting a mugshot.

Sometimes they'll be able to provide it right away, other times they'll be difficult. If the person you talk to is not helpful, ask who you need to talk to to make a formal public records request.

Generally, a formal state/county/city public records request must be made in writing, the agency you're making the request of has a state-law designated amount of time to reply within, and the agency has a right to charge you a reasonable fee to cover the cost of obtaining and copying the record.

If the arrest was made by a federal agency, it was covered by the Freedom of Information Act. There's a lot of information online about how to make FOIA requests.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 7:29 PM on October 19, 2005

By the way, if you are stonewalled like PurplePorpoise was, there is often a state watchdog agency that cracks down on local municipalities when they ignore public records laws.

If someone in Washington state gave me grief about a records request I made, the first thing I would do would be to call the state attorney general. Since each state determines its own governmental structure, your specific agency will vary.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 7:31 PM on October 19, 2005

Yeah, it's a public record, but they usually aren't obligated to make it public, and you might have to file a formal FOIA request to get one.

I tried to get the police report on a friend's arrest, once, and was stonewalled.
posted by dhartung at 8:18 PM on October 19, 2005

The police typically release mugshots because it leads to more stories along the lines of "Heroic cops arrest bad guy; public should give cops raises and free doughnuts".

The NYC police used to take arrestees on extra perp walks for the press. That is, they'd arrest someone, call the news media, when the media arrived and set up they would take the guy out of his cell, walk him down the street, turn around, walk back to the police station with media filming it, and put the guy back in his cell. The 5 o'clock news would then show John Doe "being arrested".

Same theory - good press for the police.

If the mugshot is bad press for the police (police chief being arrested) or no good press (your buddy being arrested for loitering, news media not interested), you can expect a much more difficult time getting hold of the information. FOI request and fight for it.
posted by jellicle at 9:00 PM on October 19, 2005

If you live in a place like Denton, Tx, the Sheriff's office gives you a searchable database. see here. I found out an old boss of mine was a pedophile thanks to this site.
posted by nadawi at 9:24 PM on October 19, 2005

Close to what nadawi said--you might check (if you know) if the jail that the arrestee was taken to has a website. Often they have pictures available on the website.
posted by dking at 10:46 PM on October 19, 2005

...should be: (if you know where they were taken after arrest)
posted by dking at 10:47 PM on October 19, 2005

Generally, works that government creates are in the public domain.

Works that the U.S. federal government creates, yes. But that's not generally true for state or local governments, nor for governments outside the U.S.

(I don't know about mugshots specifically, but I wanted to throw that out there.)
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 11:54 PM on October 19, 2005

Best answer: In many states, record relating to ongoing criminal investigations are specifically exempted from public records disclosure laws.

If this is not the case in the state in quetion, you ought to be able to submit a written request for the document to the custodian of the record. Some states, like Florida for example, have fast-track court procedures for getting these and provide for attorney's fees for a winning plaintiff.

You may want to contact a lawyer.

On preview: "Public domain" is a copyright term. "Public record" is what you're going after here. They have little, if anything, to do with each other.
posted by mikewas at 9:42 AM on October 20, 2005

Best answer: Just for the sake of completeness, Delay's mugshot has been posted at The Smoking Gone. Josh Micah Marshall calls it the "smiliest mugshot you have ever seen."
posted by rafter at 2:25 PM on October 20, 2005

Does everyone who gets arrested have a mugshot taken of them, and must all mugshots be released to the public?

Rarely do you see them in the UK. I suspect that they are not released into the PD, as we have data protection & privacy laws. Exceptions: I have seen the killers of Jamie Bulgers' photo released by tabloids. Offhand, that's it though.
posted by dash_slot- at 3:28 PM on October 20, 2005

In Australia -- in Victoria anyway -- police now have to tell criminals that their mugshot will be released.

The offender has the right to appeal.
posted by t0astie at 5:18 PM on October 20, 2005

I work at the university TV station in Lawrence, KS. To get mugshots, we have to go to the county courthouse and fill out a request form. Then they print off their jpegs for us -- but they won't email us the same files. Go figure.
posted by katieinshoes at 6:17 PM on October 20, 2005

Media people can get mugshots easy. Ask a local newsreporter about how to go about getting one. I was a newspaper reporter and frequently had to go down to the courthouse to get mugshots. They'd usually give me the squinty-eye, but I saw their squint and raised with a stern eye and an anticipatory finger tap. They'd rather fork it over then instead of have to deal with a "Freedom of Information Act" paperwork mess.
posted by vanoakenfold at 2:41 AM on October 22, 2005

« Older Where is Coke C2?   |   Verb tense in fiction Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.