Access to public records has become an annual topic of legislative review and revision in Louisiana and elsewhere. This year is no exception.
Louisiana generally has a strong Public Records Act, but lawmakers continually try to erode it around the edges. Advocates of transparency, particularly the news media, fight a constant battle to preserve the public’s right to see what their government is up to.
Sometimes that battle puts traditional allies on opposite sides. Such is the case with House Bill 729 by Rep. Royce Duplessis, D-New Orleans. Duplessis’ measure would make almost all mugshots, long a staple of media reports about major crimes, exempt from the Public Records Law — unless and until an arrested subject is convicted.
Duplessis is a staunch advocate of criminal justice reform, as were most of the major media in Louisiana. This time, they are not so aligned.
“Mugshots are prejudicial,” says Duplessis, an attorney. “They undermine our constitutional guarantee of being presumed innocent. A large percentage of people who are arrested are not convicted, but 100% of the people who are arrested have mugshots taken.”
Mugshots would still be available immediately to law enforcement under Duplessis’ bill, as would photos of fugitives or suspects who pose “an imminent danger” to individuals or the public.
Media and public records advocates — and many in law enforcement and elsewhere — worry that Duplessis’ bill goes too far.
“Domestic violence and sexual violence offenders are often not arrested or prosecuted,” says Scott Sternberg, general counsel for the Louisiana Press Association. “If a victim of sexual abuse sees his or her attacker’s mug shot in connection with another, similar crime, that victim could identify his or her attacker and notify law enforcement.” Sternberg also argues for an exception for public officials who are arrested.
Duplessis says he’s not keen on making too many exceptions.
“I’m generally always open to making my bills better, but I want to be careful because being too open to changes could undermine the intent of the bill,” he says, adding, “What is the social value of a mugshot? What is the goal? What is the media’s need for it when you can still tell a story without publishing a mugshot?”
Sternberg hopes Duplessis will change his mind. “There’s a social utility in mugshots on rare occasions, but banning them from immediate publication altogether can make it more difficult to catch people who repeatedly commit certain crimes and escape prosecution, or even arrest,” he says.
Duplessis also notes that many communities have seen the rise of publications and websites that publish mugshots exclusively — and charge a premium to have them removed. His bill would cap at $50 the amount such publications and websites could charge people for removing their mugshots — and punish those who fail to remove photos quickly when paid to remove them.
Duplessis offered a similar bill several years ago, but it failed to gain traction. He hopes for a different result when the House votes on HB 729 next week.