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Bill barring release of mug shots approved by Judiciary Committee

By: - May 25, 2021 5:29 pm
Closeup of handcuffs

In an executive order issued Oct. 7, Gov. Chris Sununu formally created the New Hampshire Juvenile Justice Reform Commission and named its members. (Getty Images)

Senators on the Judiciary Committee approved a measure Tuesday that would bar police from releasing most mug shots after arrests, in a 3-2 committee vote that defied party lines. 

House Bill 125 would still allow police departments to take post-arrest photographs of accused perpetrators. But the bill would prohibit the release of the mug shots under the state’s open records law until the person was actually accused.

The legislation carves out some exceptions. Police departments could release the photo if the accused person failed to appear in court after being granted bail or if the person was suspected of committing further crimes while out on bail. 

The police could also release the photos if the person were thought to pose a danger to the public. Both situations could allow law enforcement to ask the public for help in tracking down the subject, supporters say. 

The bill, proposed by Rep. Nicole Klein-Knight, a Manchester Democrat, passed the committee Tuesday with the support of the two Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Jay Kahn of Keene and Becky Whitley of Hopkinton, as well as a Republican member, Harold French of Franklin.

Committee Chairwoman Sharon Carson, a Londonderry Republican, and Sen. Bill Gannon, a Sandown Republican, voted against the bill.

In recommending the bill, senators on both sides of the issue acknowledged the tricky balance between informing the public of a public safety matter and respecting the privacy of the accused.

Supporters of the bill argued that, for most arrests, public photos of the person accused do far more harm to that person down the line than good. 

“This bill is important because people are innocent until proven guilty, but the public release of post-arrest pictures can really become a barrier for folks to getting housing, employment, and personal relationships, regardless of whether that person ends up being convicted of that crime,” Whitley said during a short debate ahead of the vote. 

Mug shots of accused people – whether appearing in newspaper articles or Facebook posts from police departments – can live on for years, long after the penalty was served or even after the case is dismissed, supporters argued.

But Carson said that the decision over whether to release the photos should be at the discretion of the police departments, and that many departments choose not to release photos of people accused of low-level offenses. 

And she said that the bill would interfere with the public’s right to know about who in their community was being charged for what. 

“In my opinion, this is about police transparency,” Carson said. “The public has the right to know who the police are arresting.” 

Whitley and other supporters countered that the bill would still allow police departments to release the name of the person arrested and the crime for which they were arrested. 

But Carson said the visual nature of a photo provides other benefits. 

“It also, in my opinion, allows the public to see the condition of the individual, when they were arrested,” Carson said. “We all know that police officers are charged with abusing people within their custody.”

The bill, which passed the House by a voice vote, will head to the Senate floor June 3. 

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Ethan DeWitt
Ethan DeWitt

Ethan DeWitt is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s education reporter. Previously, he worked as the New Hampshire State House reporter for the Concord Monitor, covering the state, the Legislature, and the New Hampshire presidential primary. A Westmoreland native, Ethan started his career as the politics and health care reporter at the Keene Sentinel.

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