By Pam O’Dell
State Representative Bruce Strickland (R-McDonough) authored HB845 in an attempt to restrict access to arrest booking photos. Should the bill become law, it would allow an exception within Georgia’s “Open Records Act,”
empowering arresting agencies (such as a sheriff or police department) to withhold photos of those arrested - but not convicted of - a crime.
Strickland authored the bill to address loop holes in a bill passed during the 2013 session aimed to prevent Internet-based companies from posting booking photos and charging arrestees to remove them. HB150 (now Georgia law) requires companies posting booking photos to remove them within 30 days of a citizen’s request in instances in which charges were dropped or an individual was not convicted.
Strickland (an attorney) represented a client who, after complying with new legal procedures to have photos removed, finally resolved to pay the publication company’s fees rather than pursue further legal action.
In another case, Strickland called an out-of-state Internet company on behalf of a Georgia citizen in order to comply with the law and was told by a company spokesperson that the law did not apply to companies located outside Georgia.
Lamenting the difficulty in enforcing the bill, Strickland notes, “Many of these companies are off shore and there is little that we can do to regulate them. The people’s photos who are being posted are often not truly criminals. It’s costing people jobs, their reputations and who knows what else. This photo can haunt them indefinitely.”
During a phone interview, Pickens County Sheriff Donnie Craig expressed similar concerns. Craig, who is currently required by law to make booking photos available to anyone formally requesting them, expressed the need for balance in the law that allows for public safety but preserves individuals’ right to ‘due process.’
Matthew BeGlopper, editor at Just Busted, noted that, inherent in public policies aimed to protect a free and independent press is the concept of “fair and equal access.” BeGlopper believes that, should the HB845 become law, minor publications could be denied access by virtue of the style of their publication, or perceived readership.
“This is an instance where government limits your freedom, it’s scary,” BeGlopper said, noting that Just Busted does not discriminate when publishing or removing photos. “We are fair across the board.”
Noting that all publications post pictures in some fashion or another, he said, “This is how the public knew about Justin Bieber, this is the same way that court TV works.”
David Hudson, legal counsel for the Georgia Press Association, believes that the bill is misguided. “This bill leads to government censorship. That is not a choice that government should be in. This allows law enforcement to operate in secrecy,” he said.
Strickland says he is aware of the challenges inherent in giving law enforcement discretion but notes that sheriffs and other elected officials are elected based on the public’s trust. He believes those prone to over reach their discretionary power within the law will not be re-elected.
Hudson noted that the public also has a decision to make if they believe commercial mug shot publications are immoral or unnecessarily damage the reputations of law abiding citizens adding: “If people don’t like it and feel that it is not in the public interest, they don’t have to buy it.”
The bill will receive a hearing early week amidst a fast moving legislative session. Bills not passed by the 30th day of the 40 day session ‘die’ (or fail to be considered) until the next year.
Given the controversy regarding mug shot publications, the bill will likely survive to be heard in the house chamber. It could survive under the current bill number or be attached to a surviving bill (known in capitol nomenclature as a ‘vehicle’).
O’Dell provides news on state government through The O’Dell Report in newspapers in North Georgia and her blog, odellreport.com. She can be contacted at pamodellreport@ gmail.com