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Cleveland County no longer will release mug shots to public

by Andrew Knittle Published: June 18, 2012
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Even though they've accompanied news stories and broadcasts for decades, the Cleveland County district attorney's office says mug shots taken at the county jail in Norman will not be made available to the public unless there is a legitimate “law enforcement purpose.”

Assistant District Attorney David Batton said mug shots — in most cases — aren't a necessary record to be released to the public. He said some people who've been arrested may be innocent of the charges and that “pretrial detainees” deserve to have their privacy protected.

“We want to make sure and remember that there are two sides to the First Amendment,” Batton said. “The public's right to know on one side and the protection of the individual's privacy on the other.”

Batton said that publications that feature mug shots of local residents are another reason for the policy change. He said these “rags” call up counties on a regular basis to get the photos.

The $1 magazines have titles like “Just Busted,” and usually feature the most bizarre mug shots on the front cover. They are often found in gas stations and convenience stores by the cash register. Typically, little information accompanies the mug shots, if any at all.

Batton said county officials realize that providing mug shots to such magazines could leave them vulnerable to lawsuits.

“Wholesale release of these photos just doesn't serve a law enforcement purpose in most cases,” Batton said. “Plus, the placement of the mug shots in these magazines subjects people to public scrutiny.”

Policy change

Most counties in Oklahoma, regardless of size, routinely email digital copies of inmates' mug shots to the news media.

Batton said the county's policy change followed a ruling by 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in February, which stated that releasing mug shots isn't always required under the Freedom of Information Act.

Batton said the ruling, despite being in federal court, should translate well locally. “I think the application is clear in Oklahoma,” he said.

Under federal law, a mug shot can be exempted from disclosure if releasing it “could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy."

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