It’s a snapshot that captures a fraction of a second of a life; sometimes the worst fraction of a second. And many of the rest of us can’t seem to avert our eyes.
Oh, how we love mug shots. Other people’s mug shots, that is.
“Where’s the mug shot,” said one of the early online comments after the American-Statesman posted news of Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg’s DWI arrest.
Because the arrest came on a weekend, release of the mug shot taken by the Travis County sheriff’s office was delayed. But when it was released, who could look away?
Yes, the subsequently released arrest and jail video of Lehmberg is jarring, but there’s still something unique about a mug shot. In the videos, we’re watching Lehmberg. In the mug shot, she’s staring right at us.
Lehmberg doesn’t look so good in her mug shot. Who does? Her hair was less than perfect, but not awful. Her mouth arced downward into a frown. But it’s the eyes, as they tend to do, that told the story. You can read a lot into those eyes in that mug shot, none of it good.
In Williamson County, former D.A. Ken Anderson, facing charges stemming for withholding evidence in a prosecution that put an innocent man in prison for 25 years, looks sober as a judge in his mug shot (he is a judge, and was presumably sober).
For her photo, Lehmberg, like all prisoners, stood in front of a blue screen on a cinder block wall in the basement level of the Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center. She stood in a box (about 2 feet by 2½ feet) marked by black tape on the floor. She stared into a computer camera about 6 feet away on a platform on a 2-foot silver metal pole connected to the desktop where the operator clicks a mouse to capture the two poses.
“Can you put your back on the blue wall for me,” Elizabeth Summerville, a Travis County corrections peace officer, said recently as she snapped mug shots of a shivering 21-year-old booked for harassment of a peace officer.
Most people cooperate with the mug shot process. A few don’t. Their heads are held in place.
“You actually see people who are quite happy to have their mug shot taken because they are happy,” Summerville said, adding they’re happy because the alcohol has not worn off.
Like many before her and many more to come, Lehmberg, at perhaps the worst moment of her life, simultaneously was staring into an inanimate object and at us. And we stared back.
Two other recent mug shots also caught our eyes. They showed the husband-and-wife team of former Kaufman County Justice of the Peace Eric Williams and Kim Williams, both now charged with capital murder in the slayings of Kaufman County District Attorney Mike McLelland and wife Cynthia, and Assistant District Attorney Mark Hasse.
Eric Williams, peering through glasses, has what I see as a defiant look on his face. His wife, who investigators say has confessed, looks like someone who has confessed.
And something other than their expressions drew our attention. Both seem to be wearing towels, or something like that, around their neck and shoulders. It looks that way because they are wearing towels. His-and-her outfits? No, standard procedure at the Kaufman County Sheriff’s Department.
“We place a white towel around the shoulder/neck area of people having their mug shots taken in our jail,” Lt. Justin Lewis told me. “We do this to cover clothing and/or tattoos or marks on the neck/shoulder/chest area as to protect the integrity of a facial identification during photo lineups. This is standard for our mug shots.”
As omnipresent as mug shots can seem to be, it’s rare that one could wind up as evidence in a criminal trial, says Jennifer Laurin, an assistant professor at the University of Texas School of Law. Prosecutors have little need for such evidence, she said, and a prosecutor seeking to introduce one would face a high hurdle because of the inherently prejudicial nature of such photos.
“People generally look pretty crummy” in them, Laurin said.
In an important case in mug shotdom, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit said in 1966 it was “prejudicial error” when prosecutors showed jurors a mug shot of an accused burglar.
“The double-shot picture, with front and profile shots alongside each other, is so familiar, from ‘wanted’ posters in the Post Office, motion pictures and television, that the inference that the person involved has a criminal record, or has at least been in trouble with the police, is natural, perhaps automatic,” the court said.
But while mug shots are off-limits for prosecutors, they’ve become valuable assets for profiteers. Several companies gather mug shots (most are public record) and post them online and publish them in tabloids with names like Busted! Some of these websites arrange the photos in categories with names like “Asian chicks,” “black people,” “coke whores,” “stoners” and “over 400 pounds.”
As much as we like to look at mug shots, it’s hard to believe anybody could make big money by charging us to see them. They can’t. That’s not the business model here. The really big bucks are in charging people in the mug shots (including some eventually cleared of any charges) to take them off the websites. Genius! Why didn’t you think of that? Maybe because your parents instilled in you a sense of decency.
Mugshots.com has a disclaimer noting: “All are presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. Every effort is made to ensure the accuracy of information posted on this website. However, mugshots.com does not guarantee the accuracy or timeliness of the content of this website.”
The mug shot companies like to point to the law enforcement value of posting mug shots. “Breaking News: With the help of Mugshots.com, a man believed to be John Wayne Gacy murder victim found alive 34 years later,” the website says in a link to a 2011 Florida newspaper story that says the man’s nephew discovered he was alive by way of a 2006 mug shot taken after a marijuana possession arrest.
“Some have asked us, what is the legitimate public interest in publishing booking records, mugshots?” it says on mugshots.com. “It’s too long for this page, but if you’re interested in the subject, we encourage you to explore this blog post on our site.” The blog post in question indeed offers a lengthy defense of publishing mug shots. See it at mugshots.com/blog/. Click on “Mugshots: Legitimate Public Interest.”
Mugshots.com links to unpublisharrest.com, the “Exclusive Authorized Unpublishing Vendors from ‘The Mugshots.com Database.” Unpublisharrest.com says it is “an exclusive agent authorized to submit applications to Mugshots.com “to permanently exclude mugshots/public arrest records” from the site
That, the website says, is “our sole mission.” It’s $399 to get one mug shot removed, $1,479 for four.
Here’s part of what Charles C. said in a testimonial published on unpublisharrest.com: “I placed an order a few days ago to remove my wife’s mug shot (public intoxication) from your site. I was greeted with a friendly staff, who answered my questions accordingly, processed payment … and the photo was entirely removed from the site and Google when I checked the next morning.”
He also said this: “I can’t honestly say that I agree with your line of work, but when push comes to shove, your service was carried out honestly, lawfully and … faster than expected.” (Not only is Charles C. a satisfied customer, he’s going to be a repeat one: “I received a DWI the same night that she received the public intoxication.”)
Like Charles C., lawyer Scott Ciolek of Toledo, Ohio, doesn’t agree with this line of work. He’s filed a class-action lawsuit claiming to represent more than 259,000 Ohioans who’ve had their mug shots taken. The suit doesn’t challenge anybody’s right to publish mug shots. But it alleges the companies are violating Ohio law concerning “unauthorized use of plaintiffs’ images for commercial purposes.”
Not so, says Austin lawyer Joshua Jones, who represents justmugshots.com, a defendant in the Ohio case.
“These images are public domain information that are available on the public websites of numerous sheriffs’ offices,” he said. “In addition, my client’s activities fall squarely within the news exemption provided by the statute. There is certainly a news value to these images given that these people could be living next door to you or coaching your kid’s Little League team.”
Justmugshots.com, he said, offers free removal of mug shots for people who have not been charged or have had their cases dismissed, “so,” Jones said, “any claim of extortion is similarly baseless.”
FYI, Jones wound up as justmugshots.com’s lawyer as a result of an Austin federal lawsuit filed against the California company by bustedmugshots.com. The latter accused the former of improperly using a computer program to take mug shots from bustedmugshots.com. Jones said his client won because the mug shots are in the public domain.
Several mug shot companies also were sued this month in California by an organization called California Reform Sex Offender Laws representing 10 plaintiffs.
(And yes, I know statesman.com includes a link to a ‘Booking mug database.’ I’m not sure it’s our finest hour, but we don’t seek to make money by offering to remove the mug shots in exchange for payment. And I’m told it gets a lot of traffic.)
The Texas Senate has approved two bills, SB 1289 by Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, and SB 990 by Royce West, D-Dallas, aimed at reining in the mug shot industry in several ways, including requiring that the websites that charge people to remove mug shots include the most recent information about the cases. That would seem to hamper companies that just post the mug shots in perpetuity without ever noting what the arrest led to.
Both bills are pending in the House.
I think my all-time favorite quip about mug shots came in 1994 from gubernatorial candidate George W. Bush (and, best I can tell, nobody ever dug up a mug shot from his 1976 DWI arrest in Maine). During a touch-on-crime riff, Bush told of a kid who, while gazing at mug shots on a wanted poster in a police station, asked this:
“Why didn’t you keep them when you took the pictures?”