When golfer Tiger Woods was arrested in late May for DUI, it was hard to tell what got more attention, details of Woods found by police at 3 a.m. asleep behind the wheel of a battered S65 Mercedes-Benz in Jupiter, Florida, or the mugshot of Woods, hair disheveled, eyes drooping, mouth sinking into a double chin, looking anything but the smiling champion of legend.
Snarks had a feeding frenzy. “Tiger Woods hasn’t won anything in years, unless you count his victory in the ‘Scariest Police Mug Shot’ contest,” wrote San Francisco sports columnist Scott Ostler. One of the thousands of comments on Twitter asked: “Does Nick Nolte give Tiger Woods the jacket when he is inducted into the Mugshot Hall of Fame? Or does Pee-wee Herman do the honors?”
But lest one snicker too much, remember this: It could happen to you. I recently visited the booking area of the Sarasota County Jail, where upwards of 200 people are processed every week. Many are later convicted of crimes. Others are acquitted. But except for several notable exceptions, they’re all required to look into the camera for mugshots that, in some cases, will become the most enduring images of their lives, including being one of the first things about them that appears on an internet search.
“It will follow you around, that’s for sure,” says Sheriff’s Office Major Jeff Bell, who oversees the jail operations and is known as “The Warden.”
Until about 15 years ago, Bell recalls, mugshots saw public light only when they appeared on “Wanted” posters or were gathered by newspapers or TV stations to accompany stories about heinous or unusual crimes. In those days, the Sheriff’s Office took the photos with a 35-millimeter Nikon camera, developed the prints in their dark room and filed them away in rows of metal cabinets.
The intersection of technology and social media changed that. The Sheriff’s Office now takes photos with a Dell desktop computer. Within hours, the images are posted online by media outlets such as the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, whose Mugshots site attracts thousands of views a day. They are also featured in a print publication called Gotcha-ya!, which sells for $1, is a staple at convenience stores and features photos of people recently arrested in Sarasota and Manatee counties. The business of “monetizing humiliation,” as The New York Times put it, has gone national, with sites such as mugshots.com, Just Mugshots and Busted Mugshots. Even when a subject can prove his innocence, it can cost thousands of dollars to have the mugshots removed.
At the Sarasota County jail, Bell led me through a channel of locked doors into a large room where prisoners are processed. He pointed to a wall where subjects stand. Mugshots usually take only 15 seconds. There are no second shots to get a better look. “We’re not the license bureau,” Bell says. Most prisoners, at least the sober ones, understand the photos can take on a life of their own.
“Some of them say, ‘This one is going to make the cover of Gotch-ya!,’” Bell says.
Many prisoners look either out of it, as Woods did, or forlorn. About 5 percent inexplicably offer wide smiles, which Bell says could be a nervous reaction. A few refuse to have their photos taken. Years ago, Sheriff’s officers would physically place the prisoners in front of the camera, sometimes leading to mugshots with an officer’s hands gripping the subject’s skull. But these days, Bell says, officers try to reason with prisoners, and, if that is unsuccessful, they put them in a cell and tell them no processing can be done on setting their bond until the mugshot is taken. “That usually works,” Bell says.
Not every mugshot is made public. The list of exemptions “is all over the fricking map and growing,” says Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee. It includes not only current law enforcement officers, but former ones, as well as current and former firefighters, paramedics and employees with the Department of Financial Services, among others. The head of the law enforcement agency involved in the arrest can release at his or her discretion people who fall under the exemption category. But Petersen argues it is not in the public’s interest to shield, for example, former officers arrested for serious crimes.
Another problem is getting mugshots removed from sites when a person is found innocent. State Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, authored legislation this year that would require websites to remove mugshots when requested by people who can prove their case was expunged. It would also prevent companies from charging to remove mugshots. His bill passed unanimously in the Legislature and was signed into law in June by Gov. Rick Scott.
Steube says he talked to constituents whose records were expunged but still were forced to pay national websites to get their mugshots removed. “They told me how the mugshots have followed them and hurt their ability to get jobs,” Steube says. “It’s just wrong. These people are being exploited.”
Sarasota criminal defense attorney Derek Byrd says beyond the damage to a person’s reputation, mugshots can also play a role in a criminal case. For example, prosecutors may enlarge a photo of a red-eyed, intoxicated subject to support the police officer’s report in a DUI case. Byrd says he has also used mugshots to his clients’ advantage, when the mugshot shows a sober-looking person who visibly contrasts with the police report.
“My advice if you are getting a mugshot?” Byrd says. “Open your eyes, close your mouth and look normal.”