In the latest round in the fight against mug-shot websites, Salt Lake County has copied an idea from the recording industry.
As The Salt Lake Tribune’s Mike Gorrell reports, the Salt Lake County Council unanimously voted to deny a GRAMA request Tuesday from Kyle Prall for almost 1,400 mug shots taken in January. Prall is the owner of the bustedmugshots.com website, which posts booking photos from around the country.
Prall’s site offers to remove mug shots of people who died, had their charges dismissed or were found innocent for free, while others have to pay fees, starting at $98, to remove the picture from the page.
But Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder denied the request, claiming the photos were protected records because they were copyrighted images, even though copyright rules typically do not extend to documents created by the government or for it.
For instance, Dorothea Lange’s iconic “Migrant Mother” photograph is in the public domain because it was created for the federal Farm Security Administration.
But the county council concurred with Winder. “I don’t like what Mr. Prall does,” County Councilman Dave Wilde said. Wilde is described as “a strong advocate of more openness” on the council’s website.
Winder also pushed for HB408, which requires those seeking copies of booking photos to sign a sworn statement promising not to publish the pictures on websites that charge for their removal. Those who violate the law can be charged with lying to police and possibly go to jail for up to six months.
David Reymann, Prall’s attorney, described the decision and its rationale as “absurd.”
“The County Council’s decision was driven by who my client is,” Reymann said. A Salt Lake City media attorney, Reymann said he has never seen copyright invoked as a reason for denying access to a public document.
If the sheriff’s logic were universally applied, Reymann said it could cut off the public’s access to almost any document.
David Cuillier, a journalism professor at the University of Arizona and president-elect of the Society of Professional Journalists, agreed.
“Copyright has no relevance to public records,” Cuillier said. “I think mug shots should be public.”
While mug-shot sites may be looked down on, Cuillier said publishing booking photos is not about embarrassing those arrested. Rather, it ensures that the justice system is transparent.
Cuillier explained that mug shots demonstrate that a person has been arrested, and that they have not been beaten or tortured by police at the time of their arrest. He contrasted that with third-world dictatorships where people would “disappear” with no explanation.
He said both HB408 and Salt Lake County’s actions do not bode well for American-style democracy and civil liberties.
“If Utah officials want a Stalinist society, they’re off to a good start,” Cuillier said.
Reymann said he would encourage his client to appeal, which would mean filing suit in district court. The county does not recognize the State Records Committee’s authority to hear GRAMA appeals.