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Utah's Right to Know
Donald Meyers
Donald W. Meyers writes about open-government issues for The Salt Lake Tribune. He is also the site manager of utahsright.com, the Tribune's online database of public records. He is also a member of the Society of Professional Journalists' National Freedom of Information Committee and sits on the board of directors of the Utah Foundation for Open Government.

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New Jersey bill would make mug shots public records

Just as Utah officials are looking for ways to restrict access to mug shots, New Jersey is going in the opposite direction.

The Daily Record of Parsippany, N.J., reports that a bill is moving through the Garden State’s legislature classifying booking photos as public records. The state’s open-records laws were ambiguous on the point, with some counties denying access and others granting it.

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"Releasing pictures of defendants puts a face with a name," the bill’s sponsor, Assemblyman Ronald S. Dancer, R-Ocean County, told the paper. "These pictures serve important public purposes, including protecting the transparency and integrity of our legal process for victims and offenders, helping to identify criminals on the run and keeping law-abiding citizens informed about the crimes and potential criminals in their communities."

Dancer’s bill would require mug shots to be released to the public within 24 hours of an arrest when practical.

Local prosecutors had read state law as meaning they could withhold mug shots. They also argued that releasing the photos could possibly taint the jury pool.

But the bill’s supporters say there is no evidence that releasing the photos would sway potential jurors.

"If the prosecutors were right, then we should never release arrest information, because that will taint the jury pool, too," Walter Luers, an open-government attorney, told the Daily Record. "The fact is any coverage any time the information gets out will taint the jury pool."

Contrast that to Utah, where several jailers are making it more difficult to download — or even view — mug shots in an attempt to keep them away from mug-shot websites that purportedly charge people to remove the images.

Salt Lake County, for example, no longer posts mug shots online, requiring people to file a request under the Utah Government Records Access and Management Act to get copies. And even that isn’t a guarantee, as the owner of bustedmugshots.com learned.

In that case, the county declared that the mug shots couldn’t be released because that would violate copyright laws.

This year, the Legislature passed — at Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder’s insistence — HB408, which requires people filing GRAMA requests for mug shots to sign a sworn statement that they won’t post the pictures on websites that charge to remove them.

The New Jersey bill is headed to committee.



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