Limiting public access to jail mugs sets worrisome precedent

Feb 8 2013 - 8:16pm

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The recent decision by the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office to limit public access to jail booking mug shots is understandable, but troubling.

The department no longer posts all the booking mugs to its website. Instead, the public and the media now must submit a Government Records Access Management Act (GRAMA) request for each booking mug after searching for a specific name.

The Weber County Sheriff's Office also has instituted access limits to its jail booking mugs. However, Weber does not require a GRAMA request in order to access each booking mug following a site search.

The Weber agency was concerned "there are publications and websites who obtain WCSO booking photos and copy/reproduce them. Many of these organizations then require exorbitant fees to remove these photos from their websites," Sheriff's Lt. Mark Lowther said in a statement. "Some of these publications and websites also group photos with headings that characterize their opinion of the person in the photo."

In a nutshell, the sheriffs decided to limit access to public information because they didn't like the way it was being used.

This could set a dangerous precedent. No matter how good the intentions, there will always be public officials who come along and misuse such a policy.

To channel Thomas Jefferson, I would rather live in a society in which some citizens misuse public information than in one where officials conceal information "for the public's good."

A couple of years ago I talked with one Top of Utah legislator who wanted to run a bill that would limit public access to salary information of government employees. His intent was only to protect secretaries and clerks from the prying eyes of their neighbors. He said exceptions would be made for elected officials and department supervisors.

I pointed out to him that taxpayers have as much right to know what government employees are making at the low end as at the high end because they are footing the bill.

This discussion was a precursor to the blowup over the attempts to gut GRAMA two years ago that caused such a public uproar. Some lawmakers still view that response as one created by the media.

Before the sheriff's decision, the Standard-Examiner ran an online page that automatically posted all the mugs each day of those booked into the Weber County Jail.

Since the decision, we now have to post each mug one at a time. It has added time to the process, but after a couple of weeks of transition we are now posting all the booking mugs again, including those from Davis County.

We understand the concern of the sheriff's offices and citizens who support their decision. However, we aren't just posting the photos to satisfy the morbid curiosity of the public.

The mugs serve as another layer of identification besides name, age and address that can help avoid confusion with those with similar names. Just ask any "John Smith."

In an actual case, we had a woman who learned from the jail mugs page that her sister had stolen her identity.

Booking mugs have also helped law enforcement gather additional information from the public who may recognize a face from a previous unlawful encounter.

It is important in our society, where habeas corpus is a founding principle, that arrest records remain public information rather than just the adjudication of a case. This allows the public to observe who is being arrested by law enforcement and on what charges.

It is the first step in answering the question: Who is guarding the guards?

Andy Howell is executive editor. He can be contacted at 801-625-4210 or ahowell@standard.net.

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