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Booking photos would be kept from public view under bill passed by House

Booking photographs of criminal suspects could no longer be made public by state corrections officials under a bill passed by the House of Delegates.

After about an hour of debate, delegates passed the bill on a 54-46 vote. 

As the internet search engines have made it possible to come across mugshots years after a criminal charge, some citizens who have experienced arrests have complained that those records have made it challenging to put the past behind or navigate the job market. Advocates for the bill say they have those people in mind.

David Kelly

Delegate David Kelly, R-Tyler, described a “wall of shame” with mugshots on social media sites.

“These third-party people, they don’t take them down automatically, so that young person’s life can be forever turned upside down because of a mistake that was made. It’s almost impossible to redeem yourself.”

West Virginia media organizations and some delegates have countered that mugshots of arrests represent community news and that prohibiting access amounts to prior restraint. Delegates critical of the bill also contended mugshots are a public safety tool as well as a kind of protection against secret arrests.

Brandon Steele

“It’s fundamental that we notify the public of who we have in custody,” said Delegate Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh. “This bill makes West Virginia less safe. This bill makes the state less secure.”

House Bill 4621 says “photographs of a person for identification purposes taken by the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation or any other county or state jail facility upon booking into the facility are not public records and shall not be disclosed to the public.”

There are some exceptions, such as cases of fugitives where releasing a photo could help identify a fleeing suspect or if officials determine the person is an imminent threat. Mugshots can also be released after a conviction or a guilty plea.

But, generally, the bill says “these booking photographs shall not be published or disseminated to the public.”

Geoff Foster

“Protect the innocent people that are not convicted of these crimes,” said Delegate Geoff Foster, R-Putnam.

The bill has specific directions for outlets that publish mugshots to the internet with the main goal of seeking payment for taking them down. Those outlets have to take down the photographs upon request for people who have been found not guilty or had their charge dropped.

The bill defines and differentiates news outlets from those remove -for-pay sites. Nevertheless, news outlets would not be able to publish booking photographs if they are no longer made public.

“As a news organization, I think we should be able to publish the news and publish photographs and report the news,” said Delegate Mike Hornby, R-Berkeley.

Keith Marple

Delegate Keith Marple, R-Harrison, spoke against the bill and said booking photos are useful for people to be on the watchout in their neighborhoods.

“Citizens need to see these pictures, as well as the officers, to know who’s committing crimes in their neighborhood,” Marple said. “It’s a useful tool for police work and for citizens.”

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