Shooting the Mug Shot Messenger

“Turn to the right!”

That’s what Holly Hunter’s character Ed yells out to her future husband H.I. in Raising Arizona as he poses for yet another mug shot because he can’t stop robbing convenience stores.

H.I. is a pathetic creature: all Nicholas Cage hang-dog eyes and floor-scraping jaw. His mug shots are not what you’d call “keepers.” He’s not going to send them home to Mom or post them to Instagram. They are embarrassing because he looks an absolute mess, and they’re humiliating because they are proof positive that he has once again run up against the wrong side of the law.

Pop culture has long had a fascination with mug shots, particularly of the rich and famous. Nick Nolte’s Hawaiian shirt and fright-wig hair snap (which the actor says was actually taken in a hospital and not at the jail) practically ensured continued scrutiny of the genre for years to come.

VH1 presents “The 40 Most Awesomely Bad Mug Shots.” News websites begin publishing mugshots of local arrestees in quickly navigated photo galleries.

Then there’s Gotcha!, Busted!, Crime Times and a whole slew of publications that compile local mug shots and package them into a must-read (must-judge, more likely) trashy phenomenon.

The publications get mug shots from police departments and then frequently sort them into categories for maximum entertainment: hotties, bald guys, tattoos, uglies, etc.

And then there are the mug shot websites (, e.g.,) that not only compile the pictures, but also inform the unfortunate subject of the photo that the only way to get the photo taken down is to pay a small (or not so small) fee.

There’s a lot of anger among those whose mugs are published. Reuters over the weekend chronicled the plight of two women -- one arrested for a second DUI and another arrested for crashing a friend’s Ferrari while driving drunk -- who were outraged that their mug shots were being pedaled for public consumption. The first one incredulously asked, “How is this legal? My business is my business. It's like me going to your house and looking through your things."

And it’s hard not to sympathize with someone who is trying to put her past behind her. But the bottom line is it’s not just her business. She broke laws passed by elected representatives to protect the public. (Criminal cases are officially brought in the name of "The People," "The Commonwealth," "The State," etc.) Public resources were used to put the police in the right place at the right time to observe the offense. The court system was employed to process the charges. And government resources were used to keep her in jail a few days and to track her ankle monitor.

The records themselves are public records. They are records compiled in the course of conducting public business. In Virginia, they must be released in response to a FOIA request unless their release could jeopardize an ongoing investigation. After the harm has passed, however, they are supposed to be released. Most states make mug shots readily available or upon condition like Virginia does. Only a very small number of states makes mug shots completely off limits.

Some lament that these private companies are using public records for their own personal or commercial gain. Some have suggested that the publications be barred from profiting from government data.

There are two problems with this suggestion, though: the Freedom of Information Act and, of course, the First Amendment.

It’s a FOIA problem because FOIA does not allow government to pick and choose who gets to receive public records. There is no proper/improper reason for getting records. Access cannot be predicated, either, on what the person plans to do with the records once he/she gets them -- one person’s money-making venture is another person’s puppy training papers supply.

And if we embrace the free market and capitalism and all the basic economic underpinnings of our country, why shouldn’t someone be able to use public records to make a buck? Why should government be able to sit on mountains of data that it isn’t developing into products or services the public wants or needs? Is this really an area where government should step in to stifle innovation simply for the sake of not wanting others to profit off work the government has done?

Without access to government records by private companies, how much longer (and more pricey) would it be to do a title search on a piece of property? How expensive would it be for a lawyer to go to every courthouse to look up every court opinion that might be relevant to his case?

For the subject of the picture, mug shots are a sad reminder that maybe robbing convenience stores or driving drunk is not something they would ever do again 

For the picture taker (the police), they are the product of the business that they (thankfully) perform for the public day in and day out.

For the public, they can be fodder to gawk over or they can be the means to make a living.

None of us has a right to go unscathed by public (or private) criticism or ridicule, though. And we all have a right to try to make a living through legal means. The answer is to fight back with unerring integrity, not to shoot the mugshot.

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