Editor’s Note: This is reprinted from the June edition of NewsBeat, a publication of the New York Press Association.
One provision of the recently passed state budget has been interpreted by many as a “ban” on police agencies releasing booking photographs.
But state officials have since clarified it’s not an outright ban, and local police retain a great deal of discretion in how they handle mugshots.
The measure in question, which was passed as a change to the state’s Freedom of Information Law, states that booking photographs can be withheld from the public under the exemption for records that constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy “unless public release of such information will serve a specific law enforcement purpose and disclosure is not precluded by any state or federal laws.”
The provision is intended to curtail a nefarious practice (by certain websites) that is tantamount to extortion. Those websites publish mugshots online and then charge people who want them removed.
An idle Internet search can yield booking photos that indefinitely damage an individual’s employment and personal prospects. To be clear: the public and media will still be able to access records and photos, as local law enforcement will continue to decide if there is a need to release photos and all court records are public records.
Robert Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government and an expert on the state’s Freedom of Information Law, said New York State Police will no longer be able to release mugshots due to a change to a different law, but other local law enforcement agencies are not “banned” from doing so.
“We advised for years and the courts agreed that mugshots are public,” Freeman said. “…Common sense would tell you that if you can see the face of the person who’s been charged during a public judicial
proceeding, disclosure of the photograph of that person does not rise to the level of an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”