Montana laws strongly favor public access to information, while also recognizing the personal right to privacy — both are expressly recognized in our 1972 Constitution, replacing the bare-bones model we enacted on statehood in 1889. Curiously, we did not have a recognized public policy on booking photos — aka mug shots — probably because our low population means some important issues simply never reach the courts.
Now a Montana District Court — our court of general jurisdiction, or primary trial court — has decided that booking photos are public records, under the category of “initial arrest information” specifically made public by our statutes. Courts and prosecutors in several counties, including the largest, had long taken this position, while others had treated them as confidential, leading to clashes with the media. Proponents of release point to the statutory language, and also the benefit: locating missing suspects, drawing connections that prove guilt or innocence, deterrence, and public safety. Opponents argue that release of photos suggests guilt, but media have long had access to arrest and booking records. Many small-town newspapers routinely publish those records, and jail rosters are often online.
The law may vary in your story state, but release of public info — from booking photos to jail rosters — can play a part in your stories. Think of the child who’s been told her father is working out of state, only to come across his name in a public arrest record — or to hear her friend’s parents discuss his arrest. What’s the impact on a character when a man with a similar name is publicly identified as a suspect in a horrible crime? How does seeing a suspect’s photo in the newspaper affect the victim of a crime, or lead a neighbor, a landlord, a teacher to recognize the man and decide how to respond? What emotions are unleashed in a woman who sees the photo of her long-lost love — the man who left her a voice mail message pleading for help in fighting a wrongful accusation?