Panel Changes Bill to Restrict Release of Mug Shots

Rep. Frank Garner of Kalispell says the original measure had the support of both law enforcement and news media

By Matt Volz, Associated Press

HELENA — A Montana legislative panel on Wednesday took a bill backed by police and news media to clarify that mug shots are public information and amended it to do just the opposite.

The House Judiciary Committee changed the measure to bar the release of booking photographs until a person is convicted of a crime. The photos could be released before conviction only if a judge considers it necessary or the accused consents to the release, according to the amendment.

Committee Chairman Alan Doane, R-Bloomfield, compared the release of mug shots when a person is arrested to “revenge porn,” or the dissemination of sexual images without consent.

“I’ve seen people’s lives ruined over this,” Doane said. “I think it goes against the whole concept of innocent until proven guilty. We do have that concept of freedom of the press, but I don’t think we’re suppressing that.”

The committee approved the amendment by a 14-5 vote, then tabled the measure to give interested parties a chance to weigh in on the change.

Originally, the bill sought to change state law to include booking photographs as public criminal justice information along with arrest records, court proceedings and other information.

Current law is unclear as to whether mug shots are public information or confidential criminal justice information, which has resulted in a patchwork of policies by law enforcement agencies across the state. Until a court decision in 2015, some routinely released the photos to the media, while other did not.

In the 2015 decision, District Judge Jon Oldenburg ruled that booking photos can be released as public information. After the ruling, Gallatin County’s attorney asked Attorney General Tim Fox to issue an opinion on the matter.

Fox’s office declined to do so, citing the judge’s ruling.

Montana Newspaper Association executive director Jim Rickman said the vast majority of counties now release booking photos, and the bill was meant to update the law for consistency.

“This amendment does entirely the opposite of the intent of the legislation and we will oppose it,” Rickman said in a statement.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Frank Garner, R-Kalispell, said he also opposes the change made by the committee.

“I brought the bill because it was supported by press organizations and law enforcement,” Garner said. “This definitely changes the intent. I wouldn’t be able to support it.”

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