An interesting thing happened last week when Kalispell Republican Rep. Frank Garner introduced legislation to clarify that mug shots of those booked in jail are public records: The chair of the House Judiciary Committee amended it to do the opposite.
The legislation, which was supported by law enforcement and the Montana Newspaper Association, aimed to fix ambiguous language that left Montana county attorneys interpreting the law differently — with most releasing booking photos to the public and a few others not.
Alan Doane, the Republican committee chairman from Bloomfield, compared releasing the images to “revenge porn,” according to the Associated Press, adding that he has seen “lives ruined over this.” The “this” is mug shots of someone accused of a crime printed in the paper, posted online or flashed on the television screen.
Fourteen of Doane’s fellow committee members apparently agreed and amended the bill to prohibit booking photos from being released unless that person consents or is convicted of a crime. Just five committee members dissented. The measure was then tabled to allow an opportunity for discussion. It should be interesting.
While the Beacon doesn’t make a habit of posting mug shots for the sake of posting them like some other media organizations, barring access to the images could open a Pandora’s box of unattended consequences.
If lawmakers believe law enforcement agencies should withhold booking photographs until conviction because of the potential impact on suspects, what else do they believe? Should a photographer be barred from court proceedings? Should law enforcement be barred from posting mug shots on their websites without a court order?
Right now, most law enforcement agencies post images to social media for everything from Amber Alerts to outstanding warrants. These are very public forums and include lots of mug shots.
During a quick scroll through the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office’s official Facebook page the afternoon of Jan. 27, I found plenty of images of people who have not yet been convicted of a crime.
There were stills from camera footage from local retailers of suspected thieves and forgers; there was a mug shot of a woman wanted for questioning for negligent homicide; and there was even a repost from a local television station’s Facebook page that featured a mug shot of a man arrested for allegedly robbing a Kalispell casino.
When these images were posted, none of the suspects had been found guilty of a crime. If lawmakers pass the Judiciary Committee’s legislation, would the county sheriff’s social media page be violating the law if it released these images to the public? Most likely, unless the agency had a judge’s consent.
Garner’s well-intended bill has been bastardized to the point that it will likely die in committee, and most counties, like Flathead, will continue to release mug shots while a few others won’t because of the law’s murkiness.
What’s strange is that no one opposed the bill when Garner introduced it, and the committee asked him zero questions. Instead, this sausage was made after the fact, and our Kalispell lawmaker now has his name attached to legislation he says he won’t support.
It’s not the first time a lawmaker has poisoned another lawmaker’s bill. It’s more unusual for two members of the same political party to be involved. And it’s even more unusual for a bill to be changed to the extreme that it does the exact opposite of the sponsor’s intent.
It now deserves to die.