New York state has recently taken some critical and long-overdue steps to ensure that the state’s criminal justice system treats the accused fairly, protects indigent criminal suspects, ensures adequate legal representation for all, assists released inmates in their transition back into society, keeps kids out of adult prisons and makes sure criminal cases are processed expeditiously.
But while protecting the rights of criminal suspects and convicted criminals, state officials need to be sure they don’t take away the right of the citizens to know who is being accused of crimes, the circumstances behind the allegations and information about who has been convicted of crimes.
MUGSHOT BAN PROPOSED
In another step down a slippery slope, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed amending the state’s Freedom of Information Law to ban the public disclosure of photos of the accused (mugshots), as well as booking information compiled by police when they make an arrest.
The goal of this proposal, a governor’s spokesman told the Albany Times Union, is to discourage the practice of individuals posting someone’s public mugshot on a website and then extorting the people in the photos for money to have the mugshots removed from the site.
The solution to this problem should be for the state to pass laws against the practice or to take legal action against the website operators who threaten individuals with widespread public exposure through this form of cyber-blackmail.
It should not be to deprive New York’s citizens of information about individuals who have been charged with crimes.
Members of the public have a right to know who has been arrested and charged with crimes. We have a right to see what the suspects look like. We have a right to know the circumstances behind arrests.
If you’re an adult who finds yourself subject to the state’s criminal justice system, you have no right to expect that your identity or the crime for which you are accused will remain confidential.
If you’re found not guilty of the crime for which you’ve been accused, then that will be part of the record also.
Under the proposed legislation, the restrictions would not apply in situations where police release copies of a person’s mugshot when seeking the public’s help, such as searching for a fugitive, the Times Union reported.
So essentially, the police would be given even greater discretion than they already have as to whether to protect or release an individual’s identity.
That puts too much power and discretion in their hands.
Police in many cases already make it difficult for the public and press to obtain information about individuals charged with crimes, including mugshot photos.
A new restriction placed in the Freedom of Information Law will make the public’s ability to learn this information even more difficult, if not impossible.
POTENTIAL FOR FAVORITISM
Allowing the state to withhold information about criminal charges opens up a whole possibility of potentially nefarious actions, such as protecting the identities of individuals with political connections, wealthy and influential individuals.
It also could impede police investigations in which a member of the public might recognize the individual in the mugshot in connection with other crimes.
And it could deprive the public of the ability to identify and avoid that suspect, for instance, suspects charged with sex crimes or violent offenses.
It also could eventually lead to the press not being allowed to publish information about any criminal investigations the police don’t want them to.
Withholding a suspect’s mugshot and arrest circumstances also could work against the accused, as it could prevent the public from seeing any injuries the suspect might have sustained in police custody or deprive the suspect of a witness who might come forward to identify a different perpetrator of the crime.
The state has already taken steps to protect the identity of individuals convicted of crimes by allowing the sealing of criminal records under certain circumstances.
This was done largely to help these individuals gain employment or housing without having to face the stigma of a past criminal conviction.
It’s unfortunate for people that their criminal records follow them. And it’s unfortunate that the internet has made it easier for citizens, employers and others to obtain that information.
But like the sealing of records, this proposed legislation deprives the citizens of information they have an interest in knowing and goes too far to protect the criminal at the expense of the citizens.
Remember, whenever government expands its ability to keep information secret, it never stops.