Public Mug Shot Galleries Punish Without Due Process

Funny and Unusual Punishment

Before we had state identification, mug shots were used to establish identity. They still fill that role, but now they also punish, entertain, deter, and transfix a growing, voyeuristic audience in print and online. The Christian Science Monitor points out the popularity of a crop of sensationalist pulp magazines with names like Busted, Cellmates, and Slammer.

At a time when dozens of US newspapers are searching for buyers and for cash, The Slammer’s newsstand profit margin is four times that of most local dailies, and its circulation has grown to 29,000 – up nearly 50 percent from 20,000 just last year. At more than 500 convenience stores across North Carolina, it’s selling at a buck a pop.

Individual police departments (Peoria focuses on prostitutes), local news organizations (the Tampa Bay Times has an impressively detailed site), and ad-driven online collections (The Smoking Gun) have a lot to cover.

More than 14 million Americans are arrested each year. Some are famous, some are innocent, some are unfortunate, but all are fair game to be added to these online rogues’ galleries.

Is the Presumption of Innocence a Buzz Kill?
Much like the Cops TV show, each site notes that those depicted are “presumed innocent.” But if there’s a deterrent value in such collections, then inclusion surely constitutes a penalty without due process. After all, mug shots confer a strong suggestion of guilt, which helps define those pictured as a class of “others,” who have stupidly or cruelly brought this misfortune on themselves. 

The presumption of guilt excuses the bruises and injuries sustained during the arrest, as well as our own fascination. The presumption of innocence holds these people momentarily as our peers. Let’s face it, its easier to accept that they’re guilty as all get out, and get on to the fun.  And that’s the second problem. As Reason Magazine observes:

While we’re gawking at the haunted eyes of a Midwestern meth freak or the haunted hair of Nick Nolte, cops across America are using virtual rogues’ galleries to normalize the idea that the government has the right to punish you without bothering to convict you of a crime. — As law enforcement agencies expand their powers of surveillance, as they encourage us to think of punishment without due process as standard operating procedure, we not only tolerate it, we click and click and ask for more.

At the end of the day, shame is not exclusive to the accused.

3 Responses to "Public Mug Shot Galleries Punish Without Due Process"

  • Eric

    September 24, 2009

    Thank you. I saw these on the Chicago Tribune on the side banner today while reading sports stories. I can maybe understand once someone has been convicted of a crime. But before due process? Makes me ill…

  • Lane

    December 16, 2009

    I think the public understands there is a presumption of innocence even when looking at a mugshot.

  • battery-stores

    May 21, 2010

    Thanks for sharing the post.

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