Ask the County Law Librarian — Public Access to Mug Shots
Q. Is it possible to obtain an individual’s booking photo using the booking number at a County jail?
A. There are several reasons a person might want to see booking photos (also known as “mug shots”). They are a popular part of news stories on crime, especially when celebrities or particularly newsworthy crimes are involved. In some cases, a person may want a photo to help them identify a person who may wish them harm, but whose appearance may have changed. Academic or other studies may be another potential use for booking photos.
Although a few police or sheriff’s departments routinely release booking photos, and some even post them online, in many cases they are reluctant. You can start by simply contacting the sheriff department or jail records department and requesting the photo. You may find, however, that many—including the Sacramento county jail—will not release them in response to a simple request.
Your next step could be to file a request under the California Public Records Act (California’s equivalent to the Freedom of Information Act). The CPRA (California Government Code Sections 6250 through 6276.48) requires public agencies to permit inspection of their records.
According to the advocacy group First Amendment Coalition, it’s unclear under California law whether the police are required to release booking photos.
Booking photos are a “public record” (“any writing [including photographs] containing information relating to the conduct of the public’s business prepared, owned, used, or retained by any state or local agency”). (Cal Government Code 6522(e).)
However, records of investigations and investigatory files compiled by law enforcement agencies are exempt from the CPRA requirements. (Cal. Government Code 6524(f).) In 2003, the California Attorney General issued an opinion that mug shots fall within this exception. 86 Ops. Cal. Atty. Gen. 132, 135 (2003). As a result, law enforcement agencies may, but are not required to, disclose them. Attorney General opinions do not have the force of law, but courts tend to give them great weight when deciding a legal question for the first time.
The 6524(f) exemption itself has an exception: the agency must release the arrested person’s “physical description including date of birth, color of eyes and hair, sex, height and weight,” in addition to the name of the person and information about the circumstances of the arrest. The First Amendment Coalition suggests that “[o]ne could argue that a booking photo falls into this category of records that must be released, since it does no more than visually show information that a law enforcement agency is required to release anyway.”
To use the CPRA to get a booking photo, your first step is to write a request letter. The First Amendment Coalition has a sample of what such a letter should include.
If the letter does not work, you can try re-filing the request with a higher-up official, or you can file a lawsuit to enforce your CPRA rights right away.
If you file a lawsuit, and the court agrees that the records should have been released, you are entitled to reimbursement of your fees and any attorney costs. The First Amendment Coalition has a useful page on filing such a lawsuit. They also offer a Find-A-Lawyer service to match potential litigants with First Amendment specialists, sometimes at reduced rates.
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