The mug shot is the star of the voyeur’s internet.

Any web search turns up thousands of images of people booked and photographed by police, many of them identified by name and searchable by your city, or in categories: the most grotesque, absurd, famous, attractive, pathetic.

Guilty or innocent, your mug shot lives on. Some private websites charge large fees to take down the images.

It’s depressing, but the alternative — making all mug shots secret — is worse.

In the view of a federal appeals court in Ohio, public access to mug shots is out of control. On July 14, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled 9-7 that federal booking photos are no longer public records. The decision reversed its own 1996 ruling and recognized that the world has changed since then.

“Mugshots now present an acute problem in the digital age: these images preserve the indignity of a deprivation of liberty, often at the [literal] expense of the most vulnerable among us,” Chief Judge R. Guy Cole Jr. wrote in a concurring opinion. “Look no further than the mugshot-extortion business.”

In a dissent, Judge Danny J. Boggs says the majority opinion sacrifices transparency for a dubious benefit.

“Today’s decision obscures our government’s most coercive functions — the powers to detain and accuse — and returns them to the shadows,” Boggs wrote. “Open government is too dear a cost to pay for the mirage of privacy that the majority has to offer.”

Police booking photos are nearly as old as photography itself. So is the controversy about them. Boggs points out in his opinion that police began establishing “rogues galleries” in the 19th century to identify known scofflaws.

He also cites a 1909 magazine article called “The Fateful Photograph of Duffy,” which describes the ordeal of a Brooklyn, N.Y., milk deliveryman named George Duffy who was mistakenly arrested for the smash-and-grab theft of a few bottles of whiskey from a tavern.

Duffy wasn’t charged with anything, but his photo remained in the New York police rogues gallery. From that point on, he was arrested again and again for crimes he didn’t commit, prompting his father and a judge to fight for the removal of the photo from the police station. “It subjected him to the ridicule of his friends and to the constant suspicions of the police,” the article said.

The dynamic is the same today, only magnified by anyone’s ability to collect and distribute these images en masse.

In fact, whether your mug shot is public depends on who arrests you. Minnesota law declares that booking photos are public, so police departments, sheriff’s offices and other state law enforcement agencies have to hand them over when asked.

Federal prosecutors won’t give them out, for the same reason they don’t do perp walks, said Ben Petok, a spokesman for U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger. “I don’t think that is particularly fair to someone accused of a crime,” Petok said.

The most recent ruling arose from the U.S. marshal’s refusal to give the Detroit Free Press the mug shots of four Michigan police officers charged with bribery and drug conspiracy. U.S. marshals, who handle the custody of federal arrestees, have refused to hand over mug shots since 2012, according to the circuit court’s ruling.

In recent years, Minnesota lawmakers have sought to rein in the sleazy practices of mug-shot websites, but those measures didn’t get far. They should proceed with caution and focus on stopping wrongdoing.

Mug shots have the power to humiliate and mess up reputations. They also have the power to inform and redress injustice, from clearing up mistaken identities to shedding light on racial profiling.

Chuck Samuelson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, doesn’t think government should “broadcast” mug shots in bulk. But he thinks they shouldn’t withhold them, either.

“Secret arrests are bad, period,” Samuelson said. “You don’t want it to be secret, because you want to know where the guy is.”

With facial recognition technology now widely used, including in Hennepin County, mug shots are here to stay. So is the benefit of keeping them in the public eye.

 

Contact James Eli Shiffer at james.shiffer@startribune.com or 612-673-4116.