Justice and Due Process

Utah Stops Releasing Pre-Conviction Mugshots

Last year, a Utah County dentist was arrested when one of his staff members called police after they heard a child patient screaming. The dentist was taken into custody where he had his booking photo taken, as is customary during an arrest. But later on, prosecutors reviewed the evidence for the charges and decided there was nothing to pursue. The case was dead, and the dentist was innocent. But in the public’s eyes, he was guilty. This was because his mugshot was released to the public after his arrest.

The media took the photo, and ran a story about the dentist, even though he hadn’t yet been convicted of any crime — and never would be. If you searched the dentist’s name online, the top links would lead to the story, rather than his business. You can imagine the damage this could do not only to his personal reputation but his business as well. Yet, there was little he could do. Even if he asked the media outlets to remove his mugshot from the associated story, the damage was already done. Who knows how many people could have seen, or even screenshotted and reposted, the image. And legally, media companies don’t have to oblige his request to remove the image. 

The dentist’s name was tarnished, and now he faced an uphill battle of restoring his reputation.

This story was the impetus behind the “Jail Photo Distribution Prohibition” bill, House Bill 228, sponsored by Representative Keven Stratton. The legislation, now passed and signed by the governor, stops the state from releasing booking photos until the individual has been convicted of the crime they were charged with. It is a bill that truly preserves the idea behind innocent until proven guilty. In most cases, because of this bill, individuals’ mugshots will be kept private, ensuring their reputations aren’t forever tarnished before a guilty plea or finding is ever met, despite their presumed innocence.

HB 228 does allow for specific exemptions to the mugshot privatization rule, to ensure public safety isn’t compromised. When an individual is already incarcerated when the crime occurs, their new mugshot may be released. Additionally, the photo can be released if the individual is a fugitive or “an imminent threat to an individual or public safety” and releasing the image will assist in apprehending the individual or reducing or eliminating the threat. These determinations will be made by law enforcement. A judge can also intervene in the process to order a photo be released if they determine that doing so would result in furtherance of a legitimate law enforcement interest.

This bill upholds individual’s privacy, while also ensuring public safety remains a top priority. Now, people like the dentist won’t have to worry about their livelihoods being severely harmed by a false accusation with charges that lead nowhere.