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Convicted or not, mugshots can live online forever. But should they?

Convicted or not, mugshots can live online forever. But should they?
Convicted or not, mugshots can live online forever. But should they?

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Mugshots, the photographs taken by police agencies when booking someone accused of a crime into jail, sometimes go viral.

Police post them online, people share them on social media and there are websites dedicated to publishing and profiting off mugshots, published along with the names and crimes they are accused of.

Despite the fact that some charges against the accused are sometimes dropped or downgraded, these photos of people who may be innocent or guilty, can live online forever and haunt the person in the picture.

It’s a fact that Marquis McKenzie knows too well.

“At the age of 15. I lost my voter rights before I even had them,” said McKenzie, who now works with the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.

McKenzie said his mistake has followed him for more than 15 years.

”I got kicked out of the juvenile system and charged as an adult,” he said. “I didn’t know that can even happen. I was facing a 10-year sentence but I had a fair judge, and he believed in second chances.”

Marquis McKenzie works with the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. (Copyright 2021 by WJXT News4Jax - All rights reserved.)

McKenzie pled guilty in 2006 to armed robbery and spent two years in prison. Now, more than 13 years after his release, McKenzie said he’s changed his life. He now runs non-profit teaching entrepreneurship to young people in jail.

But with an online search, anyone can find McKenzie’s teenage mug shot.

“All the stuff that I’d accomplished overcame, I still can’t put my name on a rental application,” McKenzie said.

How do mugshots end up online?

Lawmakers said more than 700,000 mugshots of Floridians are published online every year.

Whether the charges are dropped or the cases move forward, most mugshots stay online for anyone to see.

What if the person hasn’t had a trial yet? What if it’s a child? Or if they’re innocent? Do you need to see their mugshot?

Everyone is innocent until proven guilty, but there’s a mugshot readily available. News4Jax crime and safety expert Ken Jefferson said that police make arrests on probable cause. From the arrest, everything is left up to the prosecutor.

News4Jax counted the mugshots on social media accounts of various sheriff’s offices in the Jacksonville area.

From January to June of this year, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office posted 38 mugshots on its Twitter account, five of which are juveniles. Two of the 38 accused eventually had their cases dropped. The others are awaiting trial.

News4Jax photo illustration. (Copyright 2020 by WJXT News4Jax - All rights reserved.)

In St. Johns County and Bradford County, most of the mugshots posted on social media sites are registered sexual predators. Clay County posted 17 mugshots total, the majority of them have warrants out for their arrests. Nassau County has 11 mugshots up, most from drug busts and warrants.

There are 95 mugshots on the Flagler Sheriff’s Office’s Facebook page, none of them are juveniles.

So, how do law enforcement agencies decide whether or not to post mugshots on social media?

“Anytime we have a sexual predator, that’s something that we legally are obligated to post,” said Ashley Spicer, Nassau County Sheriff’s Office’s public affairs officer and former News4Jax reporter. “If there’s a large drug bust, and it has to be a pretty significant case for us to do that. But besides that, we really just don’t do that here as an agency.”

(Editor’s Note: News4Jax goes through a similar editorial process, weighing the public interest, news value and status of the person as a public figure when considering which mugshots to post on News4Jax.com.)

News4Jax asked other law enforcement agencies about their policies to remove mugshots once a suspect or person of interest is brought into custody. Some don’t have a policy and don’t remove the mugshots.

In an email, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office said, “as a government agency it’s required to leave the information posted on social media,” based on Florida State Statue 119.

News4Jax asked an attorney if that’s true.

“They’re not required under the Public Records Act and under the constitutional right of access to keep it up on social media forever,” said Virginia Hamrick, an attorney at the First Amendment Foundation.

Hamrick said there’s an exemption for juveniles and police to decide whether to remove the photo or not.

Photos of some people arrested are never released.

The Florida Supreme Court ruled that members of law enforcement, judges and other officers of the court who are arrested can opt-out of having their booking photos released.

Laws take aim at for-profit mugshot websites

Some websites make money off these mugshots.

The Better Business Bureau said sites can charge $300 and up to have them removed.

A law passed in 2017 tried to stop this but Florida Politics says publishers still made money from advertisements.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill in June allowing people whose mugshots are published to request their removal at no cost from websites whose primary business is posting such photos.

The publisher has 10 days to take it down or they’ll face a daily $1,000 fine.

MORE: Mugshot websites under new scrutiny after Florida law signed

Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, said those sites are raising money by extortion and embarrassment but not all mugshots are equal.

The new law provides exemptions for law enforcement websites and publishers like News4Jax, where posting booking photos isn’t their primary function. And the bill’s language only applies to certain mugshots. It doesn’t apply to those who haven’t been convicted.

Rep. Cord Byrd, R-Jacksonville, said there’s tension around what should or shouldn’t be public.

Byrd said there will continue to be a conversation around if arrest mugshots should continue to be released to the public before a conviction.

“There will be those who will say we have a First Amendment right to know. And so that’s where that tension comes in. But we certainly wanted to address the issue of someone making money off of it,” Byrd said.

Jon McGowan was accused of failing to pay sales taxes and his mug shot was put out on social media. He is now pushing for change. (Copyright 2021 by WJXT News4Jax - All rights reserved.)

What is the role of media?

Jon McGowan was accused of failing to pay sales taxes and his mug shot was put out on social media.

“And it was very traumatizing,” McGowan said.

He’s now studying to become a lawyer after his record was expunged. He doesn’t want mugshots to hold anyone else back.

“I really don’t think there’s much of a value to it at all,” McGowan said. “I think the issue is that police departments have gotten to a point where they’re using mugshots to brag.”

“This is not an anti-police opinion, this is just criminal justice reform,” he added.

Outside of police social accounts and websites, the public sees mugshots from the news media. News4Jax asked Al Tompkins with the non-profit Poynter Institute for Media Studies how should the media decide to use mugshots.

“The question I would ask is, what does that mugshot tell us about that person? And the answer is not very much, really,” Tompkins said.

He points to a Twitter trend that surfaced after Michael Brown was shot and killed by Ferguson police in 2014. Twitter users posted photos they believed news outlets would use if they were the subject of a story.

“I think, what people are asking of us journalists, and journalists are starting to listen more intently, maybe, is see me as a person, not just as the subject of a story. And that is not too much to ask,” Tompkins said. “I want to know why you murdered. I mean, as a journalist, okay, I know you’ve been accused, or maybe even though you’ve been convicted, but I still don’t get why.”

Tompkins said the viewer must also responsibly consume news.

Mugshot versus headshots event. (Copyright 2021 by WJXT News4Jax - All rights reserved.)

Push for change continues

Now, as politicians work to change some policies around mugshots and newsrooms across the country have more conversations, the mugshots of children and adults remain online, despite efforts from people like McKenzie.

“Back in 2015, we actually did an event that was called mugshot versus headshots,” McKenzie said. “I opened up the event for anybody who had a felony conviction to come in and get a free professional headshot to motivate them. It’s like, you’re not always who you was and it’s better out there for them as well.”

He’s giving people the second chance he got.

“It’s all about dignity, right?” McKenzie said.

There was another bill that would’ve made some mugshots confidential due to the damage it does to a person, but the bill never passed.

The Associated Press last month announced it will no longer name suspects in minor crime stories because of interest to customers. It also won’t publish stories with embarrassing mugshots or because of how the accused looks. This doesn’t include stories about police actively searching for fugitives.


About the Author:

A Florida girl and North Carolina A&T SU grad who thrives in breaking news.