Police mugshots could soon be made public again

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Published: May. 26, 2023 at 2:23 PM CDT
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The following has been provided by Louisiana Illuminator:

The Louisiana Senate is on track to reverse a bill it passed unanimously just a year ago that limited the release of mugshots of people accused of non-violent offenses prior to conviction.

House Bill 265, sponsored by Rep. Bryan Fontenot, R-Thibodaux, would effectively repeal most of a law Sen. Royce Duplessis, D-New Orleans, sponsored last year. Having already passed the House last month, Fontenot’s proposal cleared the Senate Judiciary C Committee in a 5-2 vote Tuesday and is headed to the Senate floor for consideration.

Duplessis’ law that took effect last June generally prohibits law enforcement from publishing or publicly releasing booking photos of people accused — but not yet convicted — of most non-violent offenses, though law enforcement can still disseminate mug shots if they believe the suspect poses a threat to public safety.

The law attracted a significant amount of scrutiny as it ascended through the legislature, undergoing several amendments and multiple conference committees until lawmakers from both chambers and parties agreed on a final version. It cleared the House with significant bipartisan support and passed the Senate unanimously before Gov. John Bel Edwards signed it into law.

The original version of Fontenot’s bill would have added simple cleanup language to the existing law. It would have allowed law enforcement to provide booking photos to bail bond companies that might need them to track down clients who skip bail. The proposal Duplessis got approved last year intended to allow for such situations but didn’t explicitly include bail bond companies in its list of exceptions.

Fontenot’s legislation, however, has since undergone amendments that would gut most of what the legislature passed last year. In its current version, it would allow police to release booking photos upon the request of a television station, an alleged victim or whenever the agency feels that doing so might serve “investigative purposes.”

Other media outlets — such as newspapers, radio stations and websites — wouldn’t have access to the photos.

At Tuesday’s committee hearing, Fontenot claimed he was misled when he voted for Duplessis’ bill last year. He said he supported it because of testimony that said the bill was needed to stop predatory websites from charging people to take down their booking photos even after they were exonerated or after charges against them were dropped.

“They say, ‘I’m only going to take your picture down if you pay me a thousand dollars,’” Fontenot said. “And for that reason at that moment, I voted for that bill. I thought that was the true intention. Now here we are a year later finding out that it wasn’t what the bill actually done [sic].”

Polly Johnson, president of the Louisiana Association of Broadcasters, said TV news performs a public safety role in helping police identify fugitives and in making the public aware of child molesters in the area. Her organization lobbied Fontenot to include TV stations in his bill, she said.

Fontenot echoed Johnson’s testimony, claiming the current law prevents parents from being able to see “who raped their child.”

Sen. Gary Carter, D-New Orleans, pointed out the inaccuracy of those claims, explaining how the law already contains exceptions for violent offenses and fugitives.

“The way the current law reads, we’re talking about people charged with non-violent offenses,” Carter said. “You would agree with me that rape is a crime of violence?”

Fontenot agreed but later doubled down, claiming current law makes no exceptions for people charged with cruelty to a juvenile, battery of the infirmed, oral sexual battery, arson, burglary and unauthorized entry into an inhabited dwelling.

However, the current law doesn’t apply to most of the situations Fontenot and Johnson described. It applies only to non-violent offenses. It doesn’t force police to withhold the mugshots of people charged with rape or child molestation, and they can still release booking photos when trying to apprehend a fugitive.

It also doesn’t force police to withhold the mugshots of anyone charged with non-violent offenses against children — such as cruelty to a juvenile — or against people with infirmities, non-violent human trafficking or sex offenses such as oral sexual battery or video voyeurism.

Carter said Fontenot should write a bill that would add to the state’s list of violent offenses to accomplish his goal rather than gutting the statute that so much work went into last year. He offered an amendment that would have returned Fontenot’s bill to its original posture of containing only “cleanup” language to provide an exception for bail bond agents, but the committee narrowly rejected it in a 3-4 vote.

Fontenot told the committee police currently cannot release the mugshot of a suspect in an effort to catch that person’s accomplice.

“Under my bill now, it would allow law enforcement to take that booking photo and say, ‘Did you see anyone with this individual yesterday?’” Fontenot said. “They could take that photo and now make it published under my bill, so there are extreme consequences if Sen. Carter’s amendment is adopted that would take all of these access out of the booking photo.”

Existing law already contains a provision that gives law enforcement agencies general discretion to release mugshots of anyone in order to reduce or eliminate a threat to public safety.

Sen. Mark Abraham, R-Lake Charles, asked for some clarity on the bill after the back-and-forth between Fontenot and Carter.

“We’re doing this because they’ve skipped bail?” Abraham asked. “Not just because they got arrested or whatever? It’s only because they’re fleeing, right?”

He expanded on his question, asking if the bill is just a “tool” to use TV stations to catch fleeing suspects. In response, Fontenot said he “would concur” with that statement.

Although they voted in favor of it, several Republicans on the committee asked Fontenot to work on his bill with Carter to address some of Carter’s concerns.

“If the bill does go out, it does sound like there’s a lot of work still to be done,” said Judiciary C Chairman Sen. Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge.

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