Louisiana lawmakers push to make booking mugs exempt from public record

(The Center Square) – A bill to exempt booking photos from public records has gained approval from lawmakers on the Louisiana House and Governmental Affairs Committee and now moves to the full House.

Committee members voted 11-1 to approve House Bill 729, sponsored by Rep. Royce Duplessis, D-New Orleans, to exempt mugshots from public records and prevent the media from publishing booking photos before a person is convicted.

Duplessis told the committee Wednesday the bill provides exceptions “if the person is deemed a fugitive” or poses “some imminent danger to the public.”

“If you really just take a step back and question what is the value of mugshots prior to conviction, I think it’s pretty clear they fly in the face of the constitution, that you’re deemed innocent until proven guilty,” he said. “It serves very little public benefit, if any.”

Duplessis said the U.S. Marshals Service has a longstanding policy against the release of mug shots before a conviction and has deemed them “an unwarranted invasion of privacy.” He also discussed websites that post mugshots and charge fees to have them removed, with several lawmakers commending the intent to cut off the practice.

“I believe the press has taken very positive steps, many board rooms, editorial board rooms, they’ve recognized this is an issue, so many of them have taken the steps to use more discretion in terms of not publishing mugshots,” Duplessis said. “But when it’s considered a public record, it doesn’t stop some of these other folks who don’t have the same intentions.”

Rep. Dodie Horton, R-Haughton, commended Duplessis for highlighting the issue, which she said has affected families in her community.

“I know people who have been law abiding citizens their entire lives and were arrested, and wrongfully so, and a few that were rightfully so, but before they went to court, it was everywhere,” Horton said. “The families even in some instances … had to move. They were humiliated, embarrassed.

“And never is it published the outcome of that arrest,” Horton said. “Never is it published that they were exonerated and that it was a frivolous arrest.”

Several committee members discussed whether public officials should be held to a higher standard and exempted from the bill, though most argued the concept of innocent until proven guilty should protect all.

Peter Robins-Brown, executive director of Louisiana Progress, and Sherie Thomas, outreach director for the Justice & Accountability Center of Louisiana, spoke in support of HB 729.

“There’s entities … that make individuals pay to have that information removed and, like they said before, they make them pay and then they just move it from one place to another and you pay over and over and over again and by the time it’s done you’ve spent thousands of dollars to have something removed that you were never even convicted of,” Thomas said.

Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Pineville, questioned the “slippery slope” of exempting embarrassing information from the public record, and Duplessis argued mugshots are “not the same as publishing someone’s name or address.”

Chris Kaiser, advocacy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, discussed the balance between privacy rights and the public’s right to know.

“This bill, as written, as introduced, I think strikes the right balance,” Kaiser said. “The photos themselves don’t have that inherent investigatory value that all the rest of the arrest information does, in our view.”

Scott Sternberg, general counsel to the Louisiana Press Association, argued HB 729 should be tailored more narrowly to allow for release of mugshots under more circumstances, such as for child sex offenders, violent crimes or public officials.

“Simply eliminating from the public records law the mugshot, in my opinion and in the opinion of the Louisiana Press Association, is a very broad stroke when we could use a scalpel here,” he said.

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