Mugshots Live on – Even For the Not Guilty

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 insure 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 insure 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?

Patty Hearst’s sentence for bank robbery was commuted – her mugshot lives on

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 county.

“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.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra

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.



  1. Diane Dimond on March 25, 2019 at 1:38 pm

    Reader Jerome Paul Shea writes:

    Hi Diane,

    Good column this morning (3/23): thoughtful and perceptive. The ABQJ, as you know, regularly publishes a full page of mug shots of miscreants. In that case I think that they have been convicted, but it still always makes me queasy. It’s not about identifying them for one’s safety (c’mon!); it’s “look at these losers, this scum.” The Puritans were said to be against bear-baiting not because of the physical damage done to the bear but because of the moral damage done to the spectators. Amen to that. And fair or not, most of these miscreants have Hispanic or Native American names—red meat to racists.

    If you do the crime, you should do the time, yes. But let’s not use mug shots as an opportunity for corrosive self-righteousness. And certainly not if the person was proven innocent! I hope they throw the book at those bastards in the California case, and it looks as if they will. Hurrah!

    And don’t start me on perp walks, which I think you have written about before.

    On a side note….Bucks County! I was raised in Bucks County (Doylestown, in fact, the county seat) and it seems that every couple of months I see a story about Bucks County, and it is never good (“Trevose Woman Kills Husband, Children, Family Dog”).. Of course, maybe that is just “the bus is always on the corner” thing, but instead of “you can’t go home again”…I’d rather not go home again, thanks!

    Keep up the good work.


  2. Diane Dimond on March 25, 2019 at 3:51 pm

    Reader Richard Hydell writes – (responding to question: Is release of mugshots fair?)


  3. Diane Dimond on March 25, 2019 at 3:51 pm

    Reader Fred Mizzi writes:

    Well block till verdict is in!

  4. Diane Dimond on March 25, 2019 at 3:51 pm

    Reader Sarah Page Kyrcz writes:

    This is an interesting discussion. The local police departments in my coverage area will not release mug shots. The larger cities surrounding us, will offer them to the media.

  5. Diane Dimond on March 25, 2019 at 3:52 pm

    Reader Kurt K Guy writes:

    Yes. What’s disgusting is other outlets romanticizing killers.

  6. Diane Dimond on March 25, 2019 at 3:52 pm

    Reader Bill Voinovich writes:

    I would say it depends a lot on what the crime was.

  7. Diane Dimond on March 25, 2019 at 3:52 pm

    Reader Cliff Darnell writes:

    Shame used to be a deterrent /// Of course you used to be innocent until you were proven guilty

  8. Diane Dimond on March 25, 2019 at 3:53 pm

    Reader ZaZa Bing writes:

    It’s ridiculous. No ones business. Needs to be kept confidential

  9. Diane Dimond on March 25, 2019 at 3:53 pm

    Reader Stephen Moscatello writes:

    No they shouldn’t and I find it distasteful that TMZ seems to substitute for a news source

  10. Diane Dimond on March 25, 2019 at 3:53 pm

    Reader John Bailey writes:

    NO. /// I’m a hardcore proponent of public records. If the government collects it then it should be public. And, if we don’t want it to be public then the government should not be *allowed* to collect it.
    I think mug shots are the exception. The State needs them, but they’re prejudicial to a person’s reputation. They provably cause harm to innocent people.
    During prosecution, we don’t release the police and prosecution files. Mug shots belong in there. After conviction, OK, but not prior to conviction.

  11. Diane Dimond on March 25, 2019 at 3:54 pm

    Reader Roy Palmer writes:

    Fishy ..why they don’t show them

  12. Diane Dimond on March 25, 2019 at 3:54 pm

    Reader William Drummond writes:

    My treasured photo of Johnny Cash shows him in the Starksville, MS, jail.

  13. Diane Dimond on March 25, 2019 at 3:54 pm

    Reader Linda Ellis writes:

    Perhaps not until convicted

  14. Diane Dimond on March 25, 2019 at 4:04 pm

    Reader Harold Krieg writes:

    “If mugshots are to be released, then the government must make 100% sure that the people pictured are actually guilty. …”

  15. Diane Dimond on March 26, 2019 at 11:35 am

    Reader Jim Reynolds writes:

    Are mugshots available to public?
    All criminal matters typically become public record. This means criminal records, court records, and even mugshots are released to the public. However, some states and local governments have different laws on mugshots. For example, if criminal charges are not filed then a mugshot may not be available.Aug 14, 2

  16. Diane Dimond on March 26, 2019 at 11:35 am

    Reader Lisa Farrell wrties:

    No. I’ve always had an issue with this.

  17. Diane Dimond on March 26, 2019 at 11:35 am

    Reader Steve Liddick writes:

    Photos of suspects potentially poisons the prospective jury pool; convicted before they are convicted. At the same time, publicity gives the demented attention seeker what they want. Neither is desirable.

  18. Diane Dimond on March 26, 2019 at 11:36 am

    Reader Kathleen Wells writes:

    Remember Robert Jewell? He was arrested for the Olympic Park Bombing and it turned out it wasn’t him. It never got to trial but his life was immeasurably impacted because everyone remembers that name connected with the bombing.

  19. Diane Dimond on March 27, 2019 at 11:51 am

    Reader Marilyn writes:

    I enjoyed your Mug Shots column in our Nashua NH telegraph.

    Here we have the “granite hammer” who sweeps up people on drug charges. Unfortunately both of our sons, now 30 and 27 were picked up in 2012. One was given a felony for a 1/8 of an oz of marijuana he was going to give to a friend who visited his first apartment, unfortunately, that young man was in trouble and agreed to act as a CI to help his case so he insisted he give him a few dollars. The police said they had a video but when his lawyer asked to produce it threatened they would put our son in jail for a year if they had to show it. So he took the felony.

    The other son finished his BA, then his MBA and although he worked 3 years in the industry he is applying for work in no one returns his emails or calls after he had a great interview. One organization even told him about a job a level above the one he was applying for due to his experience yet never returned calls. All of the top companies in his industry have had him come in, it is now 7 months later and no job, no call backs after the interview. Could it be the granite hammer follows him?

    I was recently told at a seminar that if a mistake is made on the felony removal paperwork one must wait a few more years to submit. Even with a lawyer doing it (at a high cost), there is a risk of a mistake. Where in corporate do we give that type of penalty or if a mistake is made at DMV for license renewal? As you said the images live on, perhaps my son should use another address when applying for positions so as not to be listed on the front page of the granite hammer pick up in 2012. I now understand why criminal behavior might continue when hope is lost by some. How can the system be changed, what can we do or pay for to have images permanently removed? Is there a legal way to do it without a scam? One more year to apply for felony removal which also takes money and much time. Is there anything to do in the meantime? Thank you again for all that you do.

    Concerned Mom in NH

  20. Diane Dimond on April 24, 2019 at 3:32 pm

    F. Chris Garcia writes:

    Dear Diane Dimond,

    Please accept my belated thanks for your recent articles on our criminal “justice” system.
    Unfortunately, I have had personal experiences that relate directly to some of your columns.

    In 2011 I was accused of some crimes by our corrupt Albuquerque PD. I was innocent of the charges, and eventually the courts ruled against the prosecutors and closed the case in my favor.
    However, my reputation was ruined by such situations you wrote about. The courts did not find me guilty of the accusations, yet because of the sensationalist publicity generated by the media, I was presented as guilty to the “court of public opinion.” The accusations were featured prominently in banner headlines and on the above-the-fold front page of the Albuquerque Journal for three days. Due to the sensational coverage, media outlets all over the world picked up the story, and these scandal-mongering articles, including my mug shot, are still on the internet today–eight years after the alleged crimes were publicized. When my case was closed by the NM Supreme Court ruling against the prosecution, the media barely and rarely noted this “boring” outcome.

    When I appeared at the preliminary hearing, the arraignment, and pleaded not guilty (which was the truth) the local media was in the courtroom en masse. As I left the courtroom, dozens of “reporters” bombarded me with inane questions, such as: “Why did you do it”? And my case had not even reached the indictment stage yet! Of course this media frenzy during my walk from the courtroom was featured prominently on the television news.

    As you have written, it is clear that the old judicial canon of “innocent until proven guilty” does not reflect our present social reality. Persons accused of a crime are presumed to be guilty, largely due to the way the media present these cases. Although the courts may eventually find the accused, the suspects, not guilty, great damage will have already been done. The allegations and mug shots will live on perpetually on the digital media, even though the accused is not found guilty in the criminal justice system.

    Again, my sincere thanks for bringing these unjust realities to the public in your columns.

    chris garcia

    F. Chris Garcia –

Leave a Comment