The United States 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on July 14, 2016 in
a 9-7 decision that criminal mug shots can be withheld by federal authorities
in the case of
Detroit Free Press, Inc. v. United States Department of Justice.
This decision overturns the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals’ 1996 decision
– a case where the
Detroit Free Press was also the plaintiff– which stated that federal mug shots were
not exempt from the Freedom of Information Act due to privacy interests.
While the July 14 ruling doesn’t completely prevent the release
of mug shots, it allows for an evaluation on a case-by-case basis of whether
or not privacy interests outweighs public interest in their disclosure.
Writing for the majority, Judge Deborah Cook stated that “A disclosed booking photo casts
a long, damaging shadow over the depicted individual…Today, an
idle internet search reveals the same booking photo that once would have
required a trip to the local library’s microfiche collection.”
Detroit Free Press, Inc. v. United States Department of Justice began after the
Detroit Free Press sued for access to mug shots in 2013 of four police officers that were
charged with drug conspiracy and bribery. Following two separate U.S.
federal appeals courts rulings that stated that privacy concerns and interests
would allow mug shots to be withheld from the public, the U.S. Marshals
Service would no longer release mug shots in the 6th Circuit states of
Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, and Michigan.
Writing for the dissent, Judge Danny Boggs stated that:
“Even if an indicted individual has a privacy interest in his booking
photograph, whatever invasion of privacy disclosure occasions is not ‘unwarranted’
in light of the weighty public interests that disclosure serves…The
majority’s emphasis on embarrassment misses the point. Information
can be both public and embarrassing…and the fact that a record is embarrassing
does not answer the question whether an individual can reasonably expect
that record to remain private.”
Detroit Free Press’ attorney Herschel Fink said that he and his client are still considering
appealing the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. “People have a
right to know who the government is prosecuting, and for what. Booking
photos tell the ‘who’ story in a way that a (defendant’s)
name alone can’t. They literally put a face on the government’s
prosecution, all the better for the public to see what the government
is up to,” said Fink.