A provision in the recently passed New York state budget may complicate matters for Salamanca police and other law enforcement agencies that release mugshots via social media or to news organizations.
The bill, which will go into effect once signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, aims to prohibit police from routinely releasing mugshots, which are photos of those charged with a crime during their booking procedure.
The legislation changes the state’s Freedom of Information Law, which says documents created by public agencies can only be withheld from the public if they violate a person’s privacy. The bill declares a mugshot, also known as a booking photograph, as “an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”
While many have called the bill a “mugshot ban,” it more so gives police the power to withhold the photos if they choose. Agencies will still be able to release the photos when they deem it appropriate, as the bill states police can release the images if doing so “will serve a specific law enforcement purpose.”
That could mean asking the public’s help in locating a wanted suspect, finding additional witnesses or victims or developing new leads in an investigation, said Beau Duffy, spokesperson for New York State Police.
However, the vagueness of the bill’s language is causing varying reaction from agencies across the state. Some like state police have decided to immediately stop releasing mugshots, while others such as the Wyoming and Livingston county sheriff’s offices say they will continue releasing mugshots as they previously have.
The Salamanca Police Department, which does not post mugshots on Facebook but does release them to the public upon request, has yet to make a decision on how it will handle the photographs going forward.
Salamanca Police Chief Troy Westfall said he still has to read the legislation and speak with his city attorney, but noted he is also against limiting public access to mugshots, as they can help investigations.
“If we have a pedophile and we put out their mugshot and what they were arrested for, then all the sudden somebody realizes, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ve seen this person at that place,’ and we have another case,” he said. “If you had a burglary … someone might say, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ve seen this person over at my neighbor’s house and my neighbor’s house was burglarized.’ Then you solve another case.”
It’s unclear how the Cattaraugus County Sheriff’s Office will handle the new bill, as Sheriff Timothy Whitcomb was unavailable for comment.
State police, which had posted mugshots onto its website, announced Wednesday it will immediately stop releasing the photos.
“The law is not designed to limit all access to these photos, but instead to protect the privacy rights of individuals involved in the justice system and to allow law enforcement agencies to determine when disclosure is reasonable given the circumstances,” Duffy said in the announcement.
Cuomo, who pushed for limiting mugshots, has said the purpose is to stop shady websites that post mugshots and then demand payment in order to remove them, likening the practice to extortion.
Westfall voiced concerns that the mugshot provision could just be the beginning of the state limiting arrest information; the original proposal called for limiting all booking information but was revised to just mugshots.
Westfall called it a “privilege” to have your arrest information released to the public.
“In other countries, if you get arrested, you just disappear,” he said. “That’s scary.”
(Contact reporter Tom Dinki at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter, @tomdinki)