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No more mug shots?

ALBANY, NY — The digital age has given birth to a wide array of websites that post mug shots, very often of people who have not yet been convicted of a crime. As part of the New York State 2019 budget process, the state legislature adopted a bill that would stop the New York State Police from routinely issuing mug shots with press releases regarding many crimes. Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office issued a statement saying that the law was meant to target specific websites that would post mug shots and refuse to remove them until a fee was paid.

Cuomo’s office wrote, “The digital age and proliferation of mug-shot websites have created an internet shaming industry, and it has lasting effects on the individuals portrayed, including those whose arrests do not result in conviction. An idle internet search can yield booking photos that indefinitely damage an individual’s employment and personal prospects. To be clear: The public and media will still be able to access records and photos, as local law enforcement will continue to decide if there is a need to release photos and all court records are public records.”

The law will allow law enforcement agencies to release mug shots if it will serve a specific law enforcement purpose, such as helping to locate a suspect or identify possible witnesses to a crime. According to a statement from the New York State Police, there is room for interpretation. “The law is not designed to limit all access to these photos, but instead to protect the privacy rights of individuals involved in the justice system and to allow law enforcement agencies to determine when disclosure is reasonable given the circumstances.”

Cuomo has not yet signed the legislation, so it is not yet being enforced. Still, different police organizations are reacting to the law differently. Sheriffs’ offices in some counties say they will still release mug shots as before, while others say they will halt the practice.

Eric Chaboty, the undersheriff of the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office, says that office is awaiting a legal opinion from the county attorney before deciding whether or not to release mug shots in the future.

The New York State Broadcasters Association (NYSBA) strongly disagrees with the new law. A statement on its website says, “The Governor argued that this was needed to prevent unscrupulous people from posting mug shots on the internet, then extorting those individuals. This argument fails. Nearly 18 states have addressed this problem by making such extortion a crime or imposing civil liability without making booking information private. Also, as part of the ‘social justice’ agenda, he believes that booking information should not be publicized because of damage to the reputation of the person being arrested.

“NYSBA strongly opposes this legislation. We have a First Amendment right to access to these public records. From a public safety standpoint, people have a right to know. In addition, the proposal effectively creates the possibility of secret arrests. Our view is that this information is public because it stems from police activity.”

The Legal Action Center, a group that fights discrimination against people with histories of addiction or criminal records, strongly supports the law. A post on its website says, “Publishing a person’s arrest photo and information not only constitutes an invasion of personal privacy but perpetuates unjust stigma and discrimination, particularly for low-income individuals and people of color who are disproportionately arrested in our country.”


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