My topic this week is certainly more media law than entertainment, but I hope you’ll indulge me because this is important.
Following the tragic Safeway shootings in Tuscon, both local and federal authorities took mug shots of suspect Jared Lee Loughner. A battle has since been brewing over whether we the public have a right to view them and what the effects of releasing the shots would be. Specifically, what value is there in releasing these photos of Loughner and how will it impact his ability to get a fair trial.
Before I lose you, the chilling mug shot we’ve previously seen of Loughner came from Pima County. The debate is over the federal shots taken by the U.S. Marshall’s service. The sixth circuit is the only one not recognizing a privacy right in mugshots, so it makes sense that where we are in the ninth circuit, the media had to get creative and band together.
Arguing in front of Judge Larry Burns of the United States District Court in the Southern District of California, defense for Loughner argued that he has a reasonable expectation of privacy in these photos, they’re too revealing, and they strongly imply an association with criminality. I think that’s lawyer speak for “How are we supposed to get an impartial jury after everyone has seen this?”
Well, as my media law professor said, if you walk up to people and shoot them in a public place, you have to expect that you’ve waived at least some privacy rights.
The value of releasing the photographs is at least two-fold. It’s cathartic for the public to know that Loughner is in custody and the police are doing their job. Honestly, showing that he was at least bruised when he was taken down made me feel a little better. Besides that, tax payers fund the justice system and if photographs are being taken because the authorities I pay claim that what they’re doing is important, I’d like to be the judge of that. Like a public audit.
And then, of course, there’s the claim by Judge Burns, “If someone didn’t tell me these were mug shots, I wouldn’t have known,” he said. “The frontal shot in this case I think is tamer than the picture circulated widely on the Internet.” Really Judge, the tan jumpsuit didn’t tip you off? Perhaps you were comparing them to this close-up, which just makes Loughner look entirely insane (and look at that, there I go forming conclusions about his possible insanity plea). Or were you saying they are less prejudicial than the photos of Loughner in a red thong looking like he will blow his junk off, to which I will not post a link. But seriously, what is the standard here, exactly? Should we measure what is prejudicial by comparing it to what is available on the internet?
What we don’t yet have access to is the contents of the search warrant authorities took into Loughner’s home. For the time being, the Judge has said that because there is an ongoing investigation he will not release this information. It probably includes things like his diary, computer files, books, and music. Both sides agreed to release the contents if they could be edited, which the judge rejected. I’m thinking he’s waiting for the items to be collected before the list is released. That, or he’s waiting for something for more disturbing to be released on the internet, say an itemized porn list based on Loughner’s credit card statement, and then what’s on that search warrant list won’t matter so much.