Bill would let jail booking photos made public

OLYMPIA — When someone is arrested and booked into jail, officials are required to maintain a register with the person's name, along with the time, date and reason of confinement.

That information is open to the public, but state law does not require inmates' booking photos also be available to the public.

Legislators, however, are considering a bill that would make booking photos part of the jail register that is open to the public.

Sen. Jerome Delvin, R-Richland, Sen. Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, and Sen. Dan Swecker, R-Rochester, introduced Senate Bill 5721 earlier this week. A public hearing was held Friday in Olympia on the House companion bill 1689, sponsored by Rep. Christopher Hurst, D-Enumclaw.

Hurst is chairman of the House Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Committee, which heard both support and opposition to the bill.

Newspaper and media group representatives spoke in favor of the bill, saying mugshots are available in a vast majority of states, but Washington is one of only two states west of the Mississippi that doesn't release the photos to the public.

The Benton County and Franklin County jails have daily inmate logs and new booking logs available online or by request, but booking mugs commonly aren't released.

In Oregon, however, the Umatilla County jail log is available online and the booking photo is posted along with information about the person arrested.

Rowland Thompson, representing 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 DUI. 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, Thompson said.

Since then, it's been problematic to get booking mugs when it involves cases of great interest, yet police routinely release the photos when it involves someone they're seeking, Thompson said.

Jim Neff, investigations editor at the Seattle Times, said the U.S. Supreme Court has said public release of booking photographs does not constitute an unwanted invasion of privacy for the person arrested, which is why many states make them available.

"We're the exception here in Washington state," Neff said.

He also noted that releasing mugshots could benefit people who share the same name as someone arrested, as it allows others to view the picture and see it's not them.

Representatives of defense attorneys and prosecutors associations were against releasing booking photos, saying it could result in inaccurate witness identifications and it's not fair to release images of people who are arrested but may 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.

Lewis County Sheriff Steve Mansfield said he initially was opposed to the bill when he thought it also would require the release of video footage. But once he learned it was just about booking photographs, he said he was "neutral" and would like more consideration of some issues before moving forward.

"As sheriff, it's been a lot of years before I ever got to the point where I realized that not everybody I put in my jail is actually guilty. There are a few, not many, thank God, but there are a few," Mansfield said. "We need to think about what are we balancing here as a public's right to know or an individual's right to privacy."

Committee member Rep. Brad Klippert, R-Kennewick, suggested amending the bill to require booking mugs be released "after charges are filed," and the consensus seemed to be that could be a reasonable compromise.

* Paula Horton: 509-582-1556; phorton@tricityherald.com