Washington is one of two states west of the Mississippi River where law enforcement officers don't routinely release the booking photos of suspects under arrest.
Legislation under consideration by the state House and Senate would remedy that situation by allowing jail officers to release booking photos. Lawmakers should pass Senate Bill 5721 or its companion bill in the House, HB 1689.
We have a bit of a conflict in this state. When law enforcement officers have a suspect they are looking for but have not yet taken into custody, they routinely release previous booking photos in the hopes that the media will publish them and that some member of the public will recognize the suspect and alert law enforcement.
When it serves law enforcement’s purposes, they are quick to release booking photos.
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At other times, some jails regularly release photos while others refuse. Those that don’t release booking photos point to a state Supreme Court decision as the reason.
Rowland Thompson, executive director and lobbyist for Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington and Washington Newspaper Publishers Association, said the issue with booking mugs came up 12 years ago in Spokane when an assistant city attorney was arrested for driving under the influence. Jail officials refused to release his booking photo even though they routinely had been releasing mugshots to the media.
The case went to the Supreme Court, which ruled 5-4 that booking mugs did not have to be released to the public, according to Thompson.
The House and Senate bills would reverse that Supreme Court ruling and make it clear that booking photos are part of the public record, just as jail officers must release the suspect’s name, along with the time, date and reason for confinement.
Sen. Jerome Delvin, R-Richland; Sen. Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla; and Sen. Dan Swecker, R-Rochester, introduced Senate Bill 5721. A public hearing was held recently on the House companion bill 1689, sponsored by Rep. Christopher Hurst, D-Enumclaw.
Not surprisingly, newspaper and media group representatives spoke in favor of the bill, saying mugshots are available in a vast majority of states. West of the Mississippi River, only South Dakota and Washington don’t immediately release mug shots.
Umatilla County in Oregon has it right. Officials there put the jail log online and the booking photo is posted right along with information about the person arrested.
Newspaper officials say using booking photos benefits people who share the same name as someone placed under arrest. It allows others in the community to see the suspect is not the person they know.
The public disclosure bills have drawn opposition from representatives of defense attorneys and prosecutors associations who said it could result in inaccurate witness identifications. They say it’s not fair to release images of people who are arrested but might not be charged with a crime.
“There is no particular benefit, but there is a detriment to the judicial process – it will increase wrongful convictions and decrease effectiveness of law enforcement,” argued Kent Underwood, representing the Washington Defenders Association and Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
Tom McBride, of the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, said it can be a disservice to the public to have a booking mug released without a review by prosecutors to determine if criminal charges are warranted.
“It seems like the public can be served by the photo being released, but it can be released at another time,” McBride said.
To their credit, those on both sides of this issue have reached a compromise to allow an amended bill to move forward that will allow the release of booking photos after prosecutors have filed charges.
That’s a reasonable compromise. In this state prosecutors must charge a suspect within the first 72 hours or release the suspect. Prosecutors routinely file charges in Thurston County in the first 24-48 hours. That means booking photos will be available in a reasonable amount of time.
Let’s hope the compromise clears the way for easy passage of the booking photo legislation.