Mug shots of suspects are a Texas media tradition. Could it be over?
“If push comes to shove, I’m pretty sure I’d win an argument with the AG’s office,” Bell County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy, Chuck Cox told a Daily Telegram reporter in reference to the newspaper’s public records request for the snapshot.
Cox referred to Government Code Chapter 552.101, which exempts disclosure of information considered confidential by constitutional law, statutory law or by judicial decision.
He said the records compiled for teenaged suspect Edgar Lopez-Benitez “are considered by Bell County to be juvenile records based on his age and because he hasn’t been emancipated by a conviction.”
They would have a strong case if Lopez-Benitez had not been charged and indicted as an adult, said Joel White, an open records lawyer and past president of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.
“To be a juvenile record, you would have to be a juvenile in court,” White said. “Once you decide to try him in regular court, then it seems to me you play by the adult rules.”
A Bell County legal read, though, differs with White.
“I understand that argument,” said Bob Odom, an attorney with the Bell County District Attorney’s office, which provided the legal read to the sheriff’s office. “But that’s not what case law says.”
Odom said he relied on a case out of Houston, where a person sought records of an adult-certified juvenile from the Houston Police Department. The request was denied and upheld, a decision in part reading, “…because [juvenile law code] 58.007 does not contain language allowing the disclosure of law-enforcement records where a juvenile has been certified and tried as an adult, the requested information is excepted from disclosure.”
Law enforcement has become more concerned about its legal exposure if a mug shot is given to the media and the suspect is exonerated; the shot is public with little the defendant — or the law enforcement agency — can do about it.
Further, websites that feature mug shots from around the U.S. have popped up over the years, putting out the face of both hardened criminals and someone having the worst day or their life. Those sites in some states charge an acquitted suspect a fee to remove the photo from the site.
State lawmakers in 2013 passed a law making it illegal to charge for removal of defendants who have been cleared.
There are also provisions in the law that apply to the release of the records of minors, including a specific article that prohibits the release of photos of minors. In cases where records connected to minors are made public, the names of those under aged are redacted.
In most states, being charged as an adult extends to the release of public records pertaining to the case. Colorado last year passed a law requiring a formal order of a juvenile charged in adult court before records on the accused were to be released.
Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].