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Local News

Georgia lawmakers hold out hope for bill that would restrict publication of mugshots

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Toni Odejimi, Georgia Recorder
February 26, 2024

Sheriff’s offices posting mugshots of booked people has been a commonplace practice for a while now. It also has some blood on its hands. 

“An 18-year-old committed suicide because they did not have the money to get the mugshot removed, and he could not get a job,” said Tyrone Democrat Rep. Derrick Jackson. 

Georgians who have not been convicted of a crime have lost their jobs and reputations because of their posted mugshot. Those with criminal records have unemployment rates at 27% according to the Prison Policy Initiative. For something as minor as a parking ticket, websites take these mugshots from the sheriff’s department’s website and memorialize them for profit. 

Atlanta Democratic Rep. Roger Bruce is trying to do something to change all of that. 

Bruce proposed House Bill 882 this year, legislation that would restrict sheriff’s offices from posting mugshots until the person has been convicted. If someone had been proven or assumed innocent, they could request their mugshot to be taken down. If the website doesn’t comply, they get a $500 fine every day until the photo is deleted.

Designated mugshot websites, such as the Georgia Gazette, upload mugshots with little context about the charged crime. After someone pays a fee for them to take it down, they often upload the photo on a different website and ask for more money, Bruce said. 

It used to be a lot more work to remove the mugshots. Bruce worked on legislation in 2013 that required mugshot websites to take down the photos of innocent people in 30 days at their request. Bruce is now trying to get rid of the websites entirely. 

“If you’re not convicted you should not be treated as if you have,” said Bruce. 

The bill has bipartisan support, with Blairsville Republican Rep. Stan Gunter, chairman of the Judiciary Committee and Bremen Republican Rep. Tyler Paul Smith, chairman of the Judiciary Non-Civil Committee sponsoring the measure. Jackson and House Minority Leader James Beverly also sponsored the bill. Gunter was persuaded to support it after Bruce brought the issue to light. 

“Republicans aren’t the only ones with good ideas,” said Gunter. 

And Bruce is not the only one posing a bill curbing mugshot websites. Woodstock Republican Rep. Jordan Riley proposed a similar measure in the Public Safety Committee, House Bill 930. However, Riley’s measure differs greatly from Bruce’s.  

One, it does not have bipartisan support, although it does bear the signatures of some influential Republicans in the GOP-controlled Legislature. Second, it’s more restrictive to journalists. 

The press can still request mugshots of people who are booked into jail if they provide their credentials to the sheriff’s office under Bruce’s bill. Jackson said that journalists typically ask for mugshots for high-profile people, such as the Young Thug and Donald Trump cases pending in Fulton County. With Ridley’s bill, no mugshot would be released until conviction unless the sheriff determines that the release would make people safer. 

Under Ridley’s bill, the press could not obtain anybody’s booking photo until conviction, putting the information flow in the sheriff’s office’s hands. 

At the recent Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee meeting, Ridley’s bill piqued the interest of Mableton Democrat Rep. Terry Cummings.

However, issues with the workload placed on the sheriff’s office came into comment after J. Terry Norris, executive director of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association said that offices were already overwhelmed as it is. The extra effort of tracking down those who have been convicted through the courts makes the bill “totally unachievable.” 

Also in favor of suppressing mugshots for people not yet convicted is Mazie Lynn Guertin, executive director at the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. 

Guertin said that defense attorneys have been pushing for legislation like this. Their clients have suffered from the publication of mugshots, Guertin said. 

“​​This is just capitalizing on another person’s misfortune for your own financial gain,” said Guertin. 

Nora Benavidez from the Georgia First Amendment Foundation sees flaws in the proposal to keep mugshots under wraps until the courts weigh in though. 

“A person who has been taken into custody is effectively unprotected from abuse,” said Benavidez. 

She, and other critics, claim that the bill removes protections from prisoners being abused. Because the public wouldn’t have access to these mugshots, they wouldn’t be aware that an arrest made was a part of a larger trend of arrests. The bill, to her, would also restrict what the press could report on because they wouldn’t be able to access the mugshots as easily. 

That burden is especially placed on freelance reporters who would have to prove their credentials as legitimate to access the mugshot. 

Jackson said that the spirit of the bill isn’t to “curtail free speech,” but to protect Georgians from exploitative websites. Bruce pushed back on the contention that his legislation runs counter to the First Amendment. 

“I’m not stopping anybody from saying whatever they want to say. But I think the concept of innocent till proven guilty tops all,” Bruce said. 

Despite the bipartisan support for the bill, it remains stuck in a subcommittee. The bill has to get out of the House committee by Wednesday to be considered in time for Crossover Day. If it doesn’t cross over from the House to the Senate by Feb. 29, it has to be reworked from scratch, as the legislative two-year cycle ends this session. Ridley’s bill also seems unlikely to pass through. 

Still, sponsors of the bill hold fast to the notion that the state needs to protect Georgians from bad actors. 

“We just want to make sure that we protect and preserve the identity of innocent Georgians so that they’re not exploited,” said Jackson.

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Georgia Recorder maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John McCosh for questions: info@georgiarecorder.com. Follow Georgia Recorder on Facebook and Twitter.

This article is republished from Georgia Recorder under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.