Mugshots appear in news articles or television news reports whenever someone gets picked up by the police, and celebrity mugshots are always popular on the internet.
A background check will reveal mugshots of the person being investigated, but where did the idea of the mugshot even come from?
Mugshots as identification
To understand why mugshots are publicly available, it’s important to remember that police have always needed a way to identify people. Before fingerprint records were common, everyone had to rely on photographs. Before that, police could only use written physical descriptions.
The first photo of a person was taken in the late 1830s, but it wasn’t until almost the end of that century that the legal system began to realize just how valuable photos are in identifying people. It may seem hard to believe now, but for a long time, no one was sure if a photograph could really be valid evidence. Photos simply weren’t well enough understood.
Finally, in the 1880s, a clerk in a police office in Paris, France created the mugshot as we know it today. He introduced a system of taking two pictures of a person: one from the front and one from the side. He then attached the pictures to cards that gave other important identifying information, like hair and eye color, the precise length of the person’s pinky finger, and any identifying marks.
Early mugshots were a crime-fighting breakthrough, making it easier for the police to identify criminals and were used in conjunction with physical descriptions and measurements. For decades, however, mugshots mainly stayed in police files.
Why mugshots are made public
There are a lot of reasons why mugshots eventually became part of the public record. Here are just a few of them:
To find bail jumpers: The police always worry about someone getting free on bail and then fleeing before their court date comes around. Publishing mugshots was originally a way of making it easier to locate a bail jumper, discouraging them from trying to run.
To protect the public: If a dangerous person escapes prison, having a mugshot to release to the public helps keep people safe. If everyone knows what the criminal in question looks like, they are less likely to have a personal run-in and more likely to call the police.
To stop scams: Today, most scams take place over the phone or through the internet. Decades ago, a good scam had to be run in person. By publishing the mugshots of notorious scammers in the area, local police made it harder for scammers to fool people.
To deter crime: A somewhat controversial reason for making mugshots public is as a deterrent. Authorities all over the world have, at times, argued that the shame of having a mugshot made public would make someone think twice about committing petty crimes in particular.
To keep authorities accountable: Throughout human history, and even today in certain countries, governments have been known simply “disappear” troublesome people or political opponents. Mugshots have traditionally been made public in the United States to ensure that no one can simply disappear in police custody.
Changes in mugshot law
In the modern era, privacy concerns are becoming a bigger issue than ever before. These concerns affect access to mugshots, and now some government agencies will not automatically release mugshots of anyone not considered a danger to the public.
The Freedom of Information Act, however, still allows anyone to have access to mugshots. However, if the person in question isn’t considered dangerous, you can only get access if you show legal justification for the request, and that justification has to outweigh the person’s right to privacy.