Release of booking photos should have restrictions

Published 10:34 am Saturday, June 25, 2022

On June 16, Governor John Bel Edwards signed Act No. 494 into law, restricting law enforcement agencies from publishing booking photos for most offenses.

The St. James Parish Sheriff’s Office quickly notified the public that they would not be posting booking photos unless the charges fall within the exceptions outlined in the law. The knee jerk reaction in the comments was that the public was being deprived of its right to be informed in favor of “protecting the criminals.”

I am not surprised that Act No. 494, formerly HB 729, has passed into law, and I don’t consider it an egregious infringement on the public’s right to be informed. The law is intended to protect members of the public because everyone is innocent until proven guilty.

It’s also important to note that this law does not, by any means, outlaw the releasing of all booking photos. There are several exceptions relating to crimes of violence and charges including sex offenses, human trafficking, offenses against minors, offenses against individuals with infirmities, video voyeurism, cruelty to animals and dogfighting.

Law enforcement will not be prohibited from releasing photos to identify a fugitive or inform the public about an imminent threat.

However, published photos must have the written disclaimer that all persons are presumed innocent until proven guilty. This concept is at the basis of our judicial system, and it’s something L’OBSERVATEUR has previously put in place when disseminating arrest reports in print and online.

Law enforcement won’t face criminal or civil penalties for the accidental release of a booking photo, as long as they acted in good faith. However, there would be penalties involved for charging fees to remove a booking photo.

During my first few years as a reporter, I posted photos that the local sheriff’s offices sent our way without a second thought. Recent legislation has made me consider how these photos impact a person’s digital footprint and ability to obtain gainful employment in the future, especially if they are not guilty. Newspapers are often notified when arrests are made and when juries convict a defendant in high profile cases. Convictions might happen years down the road, and we certainly don’t receive press releases and follow ups on every person who appears in the police beat. We don’t necessarily know if a person who appeared in a crime release later had their charges dropped, yet their booking photo is the first result when a potential employer searches their name on Google.

The recently passed law falls in line with trends seen in other states and on the federal level.

The Louisiana Press Association opposed HB 729 in its original format, which would have been an outright ban of booking photos without exceptions. The LPA was closely involved in the amendment process as the bill traveled through the Senate H&GA Committee.

“Given policymakers seeming desire to pass a bill regarding this issue, we believed this would allow newspapers to continue to serve and cover major crime issues in their communities, and not have booking photos banned outright, which is the federal standard,” the LPA said in a statement.

I am fine with not seeing booking photos for every arrest, but I am equally grateful that exceptions exist for situations where the public has every right to be informed.

 

Brooke R. Cantrelle is news editor for L’OBSERVATEUR. She can be reached at brooke.robichaux@lobservateur.com.