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The Detroit Free Press won a lawsuit this week over the public's right to federal mug shots. It was the third time in 20 years that the paper won after suing the federal government on this issue.
The Free Press first sued for access to federal mugshots in 1996, when it won at the district court level and then at the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. Other federal circuits ruled that federal mug shots were not public records, but the law stood in the Sixth Circuit, which includes Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee. In 2005, the Department of Justice argued a Supreme Court ruling had overturned the first Free Press case, but the government eventually abandoned that argument in court. Journalists have been able to access mugshots through the Sixth Circuit since 1996.
Last year, the U.S. Marshals Service, which is the agency that holds the mugshot records, decided it would no longer comply with the Sixth Circuit's 1996 ruling. The Detroit Free Press sued the service, and this week's decision by a district judge in Michigan reaffirmed that the Sixth Circuit's 1996 ruling still applies.
The government may choose to appeal this week's decision to the Sixth Circuit.