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Like diamonds, mugshots are forever — even for the innocent

When the mass shooting suspect was led into a Christchurch, New Zealand, courtroom photographers captured his shackled image. The judge then ordered that the face of Brenton Harris Tarrant, accused of the worst mass murder in New Zealand history, be blurred from public view to ensure he gets a fair trial.

What a quaint judicial order in this media-saturated day and age.

Once the defendant’s name was revealed in court, enterprising reporters simply rushed to social media and almost instantaneously found photographs of Tarrant. His face and political affiliations – posted by him for all to see – were transmitted to the world within a matter of minutes.

That said, the New Zealand judge’s order came from a thoughtful place, the idea that everything possible must be done by the court to ensure fair and impartial trials. That is a good thing.

It makes me wonder about America’s justice system. We profess an allegiance to blind justice, yet steps are taken that can automatically taint the accused. Suspects are publicly displayed for television cameras, and their mugshots are widely distributed. It’s a paradox. We say “innocent until proven guilty,” but how many innocent people wear handcuffs or take pictures with an arrest number scrawled underneath?

Many police departments proudly post their mugshots online or regularly take out full-page ads showing them in local newspapers. It can be a counter to claims of racial profiling and a way to show the citizenry that officers are on the job. The media obviously likes the transparency. Automatic release of mugshots adds to the information they can gather and disseminate to the public. And these are good things, too.

But is our system fair?

Think of the tear-and-mascara smudged mugshot of the neighbor girl caught driving under the influence or the police photo of your friend who was falsely accused looking like a deer in the headlights. They were photographed on the worst day of their lives, and their photos underscore the problem with mugshots. Long after the case is over – even if the suspect was fully cleared – the unflattering image can live on in digital perpetuity. This is a bad thing.

Several internet-based scavenger companies have popped up to capitalize on the humiliation. The operators of are due in a California court later this month to answer extortion and money laundering charges. Their lucrative business combs through police and sheriffs’ department websites and then posts the photos and arrest details on line. If someone wanted their mugshot removed, they were directed to a companion site that charged thousands of dollars to “de-publish” the post. California authorities say the firm collected more than $2 million from more than 5,700 people all across the country.

“Those who can’t afford to pay into this scheme to have their information removed pay the price when they look for a job, housing, or try to build relationships with others,” Attorney General Xavier Becerra said. “This is exploitation, plain and simple.” Imagine how a mugshot could haunt mascara girl as she applies for college.

In federal court in Pennsylvania, the defendant isn’t a company but a government entity. A class-action suit is ongoing against Bucks County and its Correctional Institute for their policy of posting mugshots on the jail’s website and leaving them there permanently. The lead plaintiff is a man whose arrest record was expunged but his mugshot lived on, online, for years until the pending litigation forced a change. If the court rules against the county in this class-action suit, some court watchers believe it could open the way for tens of thousands of convicts to file claims.

Sociologist Sarah Esther Lageson has studied the explosive impact of digitally shared mugshots for a decade. Citing the exploitation by companies that make money from publishing the photos, she wrote recently that, “It’s time for the mugshot digital economy to die.” It is easy to agree that those who extort money through mugshots should be stopped. It’s not “freedom of speech”; it is exploitation. It is also clear that permanently displayed mugshots can needlessly disgrace those who were found not guilty or those who served their time and are working hard to move on to a better life.

Yet governments have a responsibility to protect and serve citizens, and many will say publishing mugshots informs the public about the character of those around them and helps those seeking background information on strangers that come into their lives.

As was proven in the New Zealand case, blurring a face or withholding a mugshot doesn’t mean the public is kept in the dark. It just means that to fully inform the public, reporters have to work a different way. With today’s plethora of social media, it is not that difficult to find a photo of the accused. In fact, they probably posted it in the digital public square themselves. As everyone knows, what’s posted on Facebook pretty much stays on Facebook forever.

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