Reporters Committee asks Senate Judiciary Committee to probe Justice Department's mug shots policy

Press Release | March 4, 2013

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has sent a letter asking asked the Senate Judiciary Committee to raise the issue of the Justice Department’s policy on release of federal booking photographs with Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. when he testifies at an oversight hearing scheduled for March 6.

The concern comes in light of a new policy by the U.S. Marshals Service to restrict access to federal mug shots. The Reporters Committee earlier wrote to the Marshals Service expressing concern over the policy. In January, the Reporters Committee and 37 media organizations wrote directly to Holder, asking him to overturn the new policy because it “stifles the public’s lawful access to booking photographs under FOIA without legal justification.”

“This policy of withholding booking photos runs counter to President Obama’s directives for improved government transparency, counter to long-established Freedom of Information Act law, counter to the overriding public interest in release of these images, and counter to the law as defined by the Sixth Circuit,” said Reporters Committee Executive Director Bruce D. Brown. “This oversight hearing is the perfect opportunity to ask Attorney General Holder about the issue, and we appreciate the Judiciary Committee’s consideration in elevating the discussion to a nationwide forum.”

Previously, the Marshal’s Service would release booking photos only to requests originating within the boundaries of the Sixth Circuit (Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee), as directed by the court there, or if the photos had already been released. Following two subsequent U.S. appellate court decisions in the 10th and 11th Circuits that found there may be some level of privacy enjoyed by the subjects of these photographs, the Marshals Service issued a new policy stating that no Freedom of Information Act requests for mug shots from the Sixth Circuit would be granted.

“We are very concerned that as the Justice Department celebrates agencies’ accomplishments in FOIA responses next week during Sunshine Week, one of its most important sources of public information is being relegated to the darkness of a closed file cabinet,” Brown added. “Ultimately, of course, we hope that the attorney general overturns the restrictions on release of booking photos altogether, and that this information vital to the public interest and belonging to the people is available to them.”

About the Reporters Committee:

Founded in 1970, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press offers free legal support to thousands of working journalists and media lawyers each year. It is a leader in the fight against persistent efforts by government officials to impede the release of public information, whether by withholding documents or threatening reporters with jail. In addition to its 24/7 Legal Defense Hotline, the Reporters Committee conducts cutting-edge legal research, publishes handbooks and guides on media law issues, files frequent friend-of-the-court legal briefs and offers challenging fellowships and internships for young lawyers and journalists. For more information, go to www.rcfp.org, or follow us on Twitter @rcfp.

Related Reporters Committee resources:

· Release: Reporters Committee asks U.S. Marshals Service to explain latest statement on mug shots

· Release: Reporters Committee asks DOJ to overturn new Marshals Service policy blocking release of federal mug shots

· Brief: Letter to Attorney General Holder regarding U.S. Marshals Service's mug shot release policy

· Brief: Reporters Committee letter to Senate Judiciary Committee