Mug shots—especially those of Former President Trump and those who have been indicted with him for allegedly trying to undermine Georgia’s election laws—have been much in the news lately. Indeed, Trump’s mug shot is probably the most well-publicized in history. But while there may be legitimate reasons for taking mug shots, they should not be publicized without the prior knowledge, permission, and approval of their subjects.
The police began to take mug shots in the 1840s, shortly after the invention of photography. Wikipedia reports that “The original purpose of the mug shot was to allow law enforcement to have a photographic record of an arrested individual to allow for identification by victims, the public and investigators.” Fair enough. Their usefulness as investigative tools is obvious.
The problem is that mug shots can be prejudicial to their subjects by undermining the idea that in a criminal case one is innocent until proven guilty. A decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit said that “The double-shot picture, with front and profile shots alongside each other, is so familiar from ‘wanted’ posters in the post office, motion pictures and television, that the inference that the person involved has a criminal record, or has at least been in trouble with the police, is natural, perhaps automatic.”
Of course, there may be some circumstances under which the publication of mug shots may actually benefit their subjects. In totalitarian and authoritarian dictatorships, law enforcement frequently acts in secret, causing those considered “enemies of the state” to simply vanish, with no given reason and with no trial or any sort of public record to indicate their probable fate. At least the publication of mug shots lets the public know that whatever the real or alleged offenses of their subjects, those subjects remain alive and subject to due process. So perhaps the fairest course of action is to allow the police to continue to use mug shots as valuable investigative tools, but let criminal defendants themselves decide if, when, and how the mug shots and records should be publicized.
And as for former President Trump, no doubt many of his opponents in government and the media may be taking delight in Trump’s status as the first president in American history to be arrested and photographed like a common criminal suspect. President Biden, for example, has said that in his mug shot Trump looks like a “handsome guy, wonderful guy.” But Trump’s latest legal problems seem not to have damaged his standing in the Republican Party. In fact, in an act of political jujitsu, Trump has apparently found a way to monetize his mug shot. The press has reported that he’s raised at least 7.5 million dollars selling shirts and other merchandise with it. No doubt he’ll work to make even more.
And no doubt Republicans are already working to produce evidence of wrongdoing by Biden himself in connection with the business activities of Hunter. One of Trump’s greatest supporters, Sean Hannity, has already said he’s looking forward to seeing Biden’s mugshot soon. If such a photo is ever taken and shown, one must remember that Biden, no less than Trump, is nonetheless innocent until proven guilty.
Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton from 1987 until 2023. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present). He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014. He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.