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Reporters Committee brief argues against federal mug shot rules

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  1. Freedom of Information
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed a friend-of-the-court brief Monday asking a federal appeals court to revisit…

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed a friend-of-the-court brief Monday asking a federal appeals court to revisit the U.S. Marshals Service’s “inane” policy of releasing federal suspects’ mug shots based on the requestor’s physical location.

The Reporters Committee brief is filed in support of journalist Theodore Karantsalis, who writes for several Florida-based newspapers Including The Miami Herald. The brief asks the U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta (11th Cir.) to allow the issue to be heard by all active judges of that court because it is one of “exceptional importance.”

At issue is a policy by the U.S. Marshals Service that denies release of federal mug shots except to requestors from the Sixth Circuit — Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee — or if the information has already been released to requestors from those states. The exception is made because of a 1996 ruling in the 6th Circuit that the mug shots are not exempt from FOIA because federal criminal defendants have no recognizable privacy interests in the photos once they appear in court.

In Karantsalis v. U.S. Marshals Service, the trial court and three-judge appellate panel agreed with the Marshals Service that prisoners’ privacy interests and the potential embarrassment caused by release of the mug shots outweighed public interest and could be exempted from the Freedom of Information Act.

“These rules are inane to the point of ridiculous,” said Reporters Committee Executive Director Lucy A. Dalglish. “In addition to creating an inexcusable geographic bias for release — if you live here you can get it, if you live there you cannot — all this rule does is create unnecessary hurdles for journalists and the public seeking the information. If you ask someone who lives in one of those states to make the request on your behalf, no problem; if someone from that area already has requested the information, it is generally released. This makes no sense."

The issue is made even more absurd by the fact that most states readily release these photos, often of the same subjects just prior to remanding them to federal custody,” Dalglish added.

The Reporters Committee brief can be found on its website.