Civil Liberties Mugged

Greg Beato has written an interesting article in Reason about how many municipalities are publishing mug shots as a way of publicly humiliating people. What is lost in the bread and circuses is that being arrested in not the same thing as being guilty. We forget this to our own detriment.

From the article:

Like most of these sites, Peoria’s is careful to include a disclaimer that the individuals depicted on it are “presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.” But if there’s a chance that the people on display there haven’t committed a crime, why are they being punished? As soon as a law enforcement agency presents its online rogues’ gallery as a form of deterrence, it transforms the pictures into a form of punishment as well. If appearing in this context is a fate so unpleasant that it can persuade other people to avoid engaging in illicit behavior, then surely it constitutes a penalty. And it’s a penalty that’s being applied without the hassle of due process.

We tend to overlook this fact because, frankly, it spoils the mood. The presumption of guilt makes it easier to justify laughing at 23-going-on-zombie crack whores and bugeyed misfits sporting felony-caliber mullets. They deserve the derision they get-they’re criminals! But the joke is really on us. As law enforcement agencies expand their powers of surveillance, as they encourage us to think of punishment without due process as standard operating procedure, we not only tolerate it, we click and click and ask for more. If America’s citizenry were more uniformly presentable, and its mug shots correspondingly less entertaining, we might protest these developments more strongly. Instead, we simply laugh at the latest person guilty of wearing a cow costume while being arrested, then pass along the link to our friends.

And here is one point I will make repeatedly: just because something is a public record doesn’t make it alright to publish it.


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