Police departments across California will no longer be able to splash mugshots over social media following a big arrest, after Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a new state law last week clamping down on what cops can publicize about suspects who have only been accused of crimes.
The law, AB 1475, prevents law enforcement agencies from posting mugshots of people arrested for nonviolent crimes on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. The bill's author, Assembly member Evan Low, D-Campbell, drafted the bill after what he described as an alarming trend where police and sheriff's departments were posting mugshots in order to "shame" suspects, with no real public safety purpose behind the postings.
These photos are posted before formal charges have even been filed against the suspect, and Low argued that the coerced photos — often at a moment of crisis, embarrassment and despair — affixes guilt to the person before they have gone through due process.
"These mug shots are often unflattering and do nothing to warn the public of an ongoing public safety threat, as the suspect is already in custody at the time of posting. Instead, their purpose is to shame and ridicule," Low wrote in a statement to the Senate Committee on Public Safety.
Law enforcement agencies and news media have regularly published mugshots for years, but what's changed is the reach of social media and the quick dissemination of arrestee photos. Low said these mugshots can have "devastating consequences," noting one incident in which a Native American man was wrongfully arrested yet he was still placed on administrative leave by his employer when the mugshot was posted. More broadly, Low said these mugshots can also perpetuate racial stereotypes, overstating the propensity of communities of color to commit crimes.
Last year, the San Francisco Police Department stopped releasing the mugshots for most people that officers arrest, with Police Chief Bill Scott noting that the change was made with racial justice in mind.
"This policy emerges from compelling research suggesting that the widespread publication of police booking photos in the news and on social media creates an illusory correlation for viewers that fosters racial bias and vastly overstates the propensity of black and brown men to engage in criminal behavior," Scott said in a statement following the decision.
AB 1475 has some exceptions. Along with violent crimes, police can post mugshots on social media if the suspect is a fugitive or an imminent threat to public safety, or if the photo could help locate and detain the suspect. There's also a broad exemption for "exigent circumstances" to allow for posting mugshots on social media.
The Mountain View Police Department, which has long been active on social media platforms, will comply with AB 1475 moving forward but will still publish booking photos and mugshots in cases that are of keen interest to the community, said police spokeswoman Katie Nelson. She said the department will also honor public records requests for booking photos, which are not affected by the new law.
In an update posted Monday on its website, the Palo Alto Police Department stated it would follow the new law. The agency is still preparing its internal procedures to comply with the law, Lt. James Reifschneider told this news organization in an email. "We expect to have those procedures finalized in the near future," he wrote.
The Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office already has a policy that complies with AB 1475.
"Our general policy is to only release mugs if there is a public safety reason to do it or we believe there are additional victims to find," said Sean Webby, spokesman for the District Attorney's Office.
Supporting AB 1475 is the American Civil Liberties Union, which said the practice of publishing mugshots on Facebook "flies in the face" of the premise that the accused are innocent until proven guilty. The California Public Defenders Association also backed the law, arguing that criminal defense attorneys frequently have to deal with "unfettered pretrial publicity" that can lead to wrongful convictions by way of biased identification and prejudice among jury pools. And even if an arrestee is found not guilty, the publishing of mugshots can still be harmful.
"Our clients whose cases are dismissed, successfully win at trial, or are fully rehabilitated are still stigmatized by their past publicity on the internet," the group said in a statement. "The passage of AB 1475 would be a significant step towards protecting the presumption of innocence for California's residents."
Though AB 1475 is not retroactive in the sense that law enforcement agencies must take down old mugshots that do not comply with the law, it does permit a person to request for removal of past photos that have been published. Police and sheriff's departments will be required to remove photos if the person is found not guilty, has had their records sealed or has had their conviction dismissed, pardoned or expunged.
The law passed the state Assembly and state Senate with no votes in opposition.
Many news agencies, including the Mountain View Voice and Palo Alto Weekly, have adopted policies in recent years not to publicize names and mugshots of suspects who have been arrested and have not been formally charged by the District Attorney's Office. Exceptions include arrests for a major violent crime or arrests following extensive police or FBI investigations.
The Associated Press announced last month that it would no longer name suspects in minor crime stories, conceding that the publication's coverage rarely follows up with the outcome of these cases and does not reflect whether charges were later dropped or reduced.