Court: Feds can withhold photos of criminal defendants
Detroit — The federal government can withhold mug shots of criminal defendants from the media in Michigan and three other states, an appeals court said Thursday, citing privacy concerns in the internet age.
In a 9-7 decision, the court overturned a 1996 ruling in favor of the media when mug shots typically appeared on television and in print publications.
“Today, an idle internet search reveals the same booking photo that once would have required a trip to the local library’s microfiche collection. … In 1996, this court could not have known or expected that a booking photo could haunt the depicted individual for decades,” Judge Deborah Cook wrote for the majority at the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
A photo, she said, can cast a “long, damaging shadow over the depicted individual.”
The court covers Michigan, Tennessee, Ohio and Kentucky. The U.S. Marshals Service already refuses to release booking photos in other states due to policy or rulings from other federal courts.
States in the 6th Circuit were the exception, due to a 1996 decision in a lawsuit filed by the Detroit Free Press, the same newspaper that challenged the government again in 2013 when the Marshals Service suddenly rejected requests for photos under the Freedom of Information Act. Other media organizations, including The Associated Press, joined the lawsuit.
The media cited the public’s right to know and the policy of most states to release booking photos from their local police departments, among other reasons.
“The public has a weighty interest in understanding how, and against whom, the government is using its extraordinary power to place someone in jeopardy of losing his liberty,” attorneys for the Free Press said in a court filing.
Indeed, 6th Circuit Judge Danny Boggs said mug shots can help the public understand the actions of law enforcement.
“Today’s decision obscures our government’s most coercive functions — the powers to detain and accuse — and returns them to the shadows,” Boggs said in a dissenting opinion. “Open government is too dear a cost to pay for the mirage of privacy that the majority has to offer.”