A proposed New York state law that would bar the public release of mugshots to prevent their exploitation online has set up a conflict between privacy and the public’s right to know. Organizations on both sides are speaking out.
How much does a person’s mugshot add to the public discourse? And is it worth the cost to that person’s reputation?
That issue is on the minds of lawmakers in New York state—and by extension, groups focused on journalism, law enforcement, inmate rights, privacy, and open government.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently proposed a change in the state’s freedom of information law that would block the public release of criminal mugshots and arrest records. Cuomo cited the rise of websites that post the information and then demand payment from the person in question to take the photo or booking information down. Mugshots remain in the public record, even if charges are dropped or the person has served their sentence.
“The intent of our proposal is to help curtail an unethical practice that amounts to extortion of formerly incarcerated individuals,” Jason Conwall, a spokesman for Cuomo, told the Albany Times-Union last month. “Passing legislation that prohibits websites from charging fees for removing photos has been tried by 15 other states and is not working. Mugshots keep popping up online.”
The measure would apply only to state agencies; local jurisdictions could implement their own rules. And exceptions would be made in cases where the interests of law enforcement outweigh the right to privacy.
Nonetheless, the proposal has proven divisive. Journalism groups, including the New York State Associated Press Association, argue that the change would harm the public’s right to know.
“Reporting on crimes in our communities is an extremely important function of the news media, and this proposal, as well-intentioned as it may be, would be a major threat to our ability to provide the public with important information that they count on us to receive,” the association’s president, Jeremy Boyer, recently told the Associated Press.
Meanwhile, Bud York, a member of the New York State Sheriffs’ Association’s Executive Committee, said the measure would create arrests “cloaked in secrecy.”
“Secret arrests. Nobody gets to know who was arrested or for what they were arrested,” York told WNYT last month.
Cuomo’s proposal has support among groups that advocate for people who have been incarcerated. JoAnne Page, president and CEO of one such organization, the Fortune Society, noted that mugshots and arrest records often remain a black mark long after someone convicted of a crime has served their time.
“They never disappear, and they show up in people’s lives in ways that are really damaging,” Page told the AP. “This can keep someone from getting a job, from getting housing. It can ruin people’s lives.”
Others question whether the proposal offers the wrong solution to the problem of mugshot exploitation. The Guardian last year noted that even after the founders of the company Mugshots.com were arrested on extortion, money laundering, and identity theft charges, the website remained online—as did dozens of others with the same model. The Guardian suggested that search engines should downplay those sites in search results. Google says it has tried to do so in the past, though the change hasn’t stuck.