Rep. Pam Myhra, R-Burnsville, was recently contacted by a constituent who reported their mother's mugshot had appeared on a website that publishes booking photos en masse.
The website offered to scrub the photo from the internet for a $500 fee, Myhra told us. But after her constituent forked over the money, the photo popped up on another site of the same sort.
As a result of stories like that, Myhra is chief author of a bill that would dramatically restrict access to booking photos in Minnesota.
"It's basically extortion," Myhra said.
"Some people who appear on these sites have been convicted, and some haven't, but they're all being shown as if they were convicted of something," she continued. "That's really unfair and wrong, especially when individuals are trying to get out there and get a job."
Currently, county officials will typically send booking photos via email free of charge. But Myhra's bill would bar officials from providing mugshots "in an electronic format," require those seeking them to pick them up in person, and institute a fee "of no less than $5... to the law enforcement agency for providing the photograph."
"A number of states are trying to deal with situations where bad actors are harvesting the mugshots of people who aren't necessarily convicted and creating websites with these photos," Myhra said.
But Jane Kirtley, the Silha professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota's School of Journalism and Mass Communication, criticized Myhra's bill as "very bad policy."
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"Trying to legislate behavior by controlling access to information is very poor policy, but we see it all the time in the context of digital government information," Kirtley told us. "I'm not dismissing the concerns about extortion, but I think there are way to curtail that short of curtailing access to information the public has historically had access to."
Asked about how else conundrums like the one facing Myhra's constituent could be addressed, Kirtley said, "I don't see why existing criminal laws aren't sufficient for dealing with that."
"The fact that somebody has been arrested is public information. Booking photos help us identify suspects but also people that have been wrongly arrested," Kirtley continued. "It also tells us what happened to them when they were arrested. If they've been roughed up, those scars show up, and that's a very important part of public oversight of what law enforcement is doing."
Myhra, for her part, acknowledged her bill remains a work in progress and said she's "totally open to suggestions from reporters, from citizens who are being troubled, from county sheriffs who deal with this every day."
"I am not interested in making these mugshots private information, because I think the media really needs that information for public safety," Myhra continued. "I would just like to find a solution to this problem and I'm totally open to hearing what people have to say, to constructive criticism of the bill."