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Rep. Kay J. Christofferson, right, talks with Rep. Keven J. Stratton during the first day of the legislative session held at the Utah State Capitol on Monday, Jan. 27, 2020, in Salt Lake City.

The Utah State Legislature considered and passed a bill that would prohibit the distribution of mugshots taken during the jail booking process until after the individual is convicted of the crime they were arrested for.

House Bill 228 — sponsored by Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem — would amend Utah code to make a jail booking photograph a “protected record” and prohibit disclosure of “an image taken of an individual during the process of booking the individual into jail, unless the individual is convicted of a criminal offense based upon the conduct for which the individual is incarcerated.”

Additionally, the bill allows law enforcement agencies to release or disseminate a mugshot after determining that “the individual is a fugitive or an imminent threat to an individual or to public safety” and “releasing or disseminating the image will assist in apprehending the individual or reducing or eliminating the threat,” or if “a judge orders the release or dissemination of the image based on a finding that the release or dissemination is in furtherance of a legitimate law enforcement interest.”

The bill does not limit access by law enforcement or those involved in the judicial process, according to a press release about the bill.

“The bottom line is that in today’s high tech world and environment, I believe letting the feathers fly across the world wide web and hanging a virtual scarlet letter around an innocent person’s neck merely by accusation is not only unconstitutional it is unconscionable in today’s cancel culture of guilty upon accusation,” Stratton said in the press release.

The Orem representative noted that, under the current law, mugshots live on electronically even if the suspect is ultimately found innocent or has the charges dropped.

“I believe that a mugshot should be a protected document until a person’s guilt is proven through the established processes,” Stratton said, adding that to not do so “violates the accused Constitutional rights and potentially taints jury pools.”

He continued: “This practice can also create irreversible damage to the wrongly accused person’s relationships and livelihoods. That’s the virtual scarlet letter. And, it’s wrong.”

During a House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee hearing on Thursday, lawmakers voted unanimously to give a favorable recommendation to H.B. 228.

“This bill seeks to address the inequality that comes when, in today’s high-tech world, when a mugshot is released based on arrest or accusation,” Stratton told his colleagues. “And the reality is today, in doing so, we hang a virtual scarlet letter around the one that’s been accused or arrested.”

Utah County Attorney David Leavitt spoke in favor of the bill and said he became aware of the issue “many years ago” while working as a criminal defense attorney.

“It concerned me that, in today’s internet society, that someone who is presumed innocent could have the moniker of a mugshot, which, in our society, really indicates guilt from the outset,” Leavitt said.

“We simply believe that in today’s world, that someone who is presumed innocent should not have their mugshot distributed worldwide for the rest of their life over the internet,” the Utah County attorney continued. “We believe that’s the worst punishment that someone could ever get and in fact it is cruel and unusual punishment.”

Nate Carlisle, an investigative producer and reporter for Fox 13, spoke in opposition to the bill, arguing that a better solution would be for media outlets to revise their policies regarding publishing mugshots.

“But that does not mean we should be sealing mugshots off from public access,” Carlisle said.

Connor Richards covers government, the environment and south Utah County for the Daily Herald. He can be reached at crichards@heraldextra.com and 801-344-2599.

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