A History of the Mug Shot

Posted on Categories Criminal Law & Process, Legal History, Privacy Rights, Public

Al Capone mugshotSome of the very earliest photographs from the late 1830s are of alleged and/or convicted criminals, and law enforcement officials used photographs of criminals in Belgium as early as the 1840s to track down wrong-doers.  In Paris, a clerk in the Prefecture of Police Office originated the “mug shot” as we usually imagine it — two shots side by side, with one shot being a frontal shot and the other being a profile.

This so-called “Bertillon System” was displayed at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, and it quickly caught on with American urban police departments.  It was an age of science, and some thought of the mug shot as a useful component in “scientific law enforcement.”  Indeed, there are surviving efforts by police departments to superimpose photographs of certain types of criminals on top of one another.   We could then, theoretically, have distilled images of, to note only two of many possibilities, the typical pickpocket or typical forger.

In the present, mug shots are still with us, but we now live in an era in which the market rather than science is seen by many as our savior.  It is possible to round up mug shots from public records and post them regardless of whether the pictured individuals have been prosecuted and/or convicted.  Over 80 profit-seeking mug-shot sites exist, including the likes of BustedMugshots and MugshotsOnline.  JustMugshots, which only started in 2012, has an unbelievable 16.8 photographs available online.

How do the mug-shot sites make money?  Some of course sell advertising, and others offer to conduct searches for a price.   Then, too, some offer a “courtesy removal service,” through which consumers can pay a fee and have their mug shots removed from a site.  Some claim this is nothing short of extortion, raising the delightful possibility that those posting the mug shots rather than those pictured in them are the true criminals!

4 thoughts on “A History of the Mug Shot”

  1. This year’s Appellate Writing and Advocacy problem, in part, revolves around whether mug shots taken by someone in the U.S. Marshal Service must/should be released subject to a FOIA request for the mug shots.

    This post raises some interesting policy points. Thanks! I bet this post gets some fantastic AWA students thinking.

  2. In your last paragraph you mention that the site has an “unbelievable 16.8 photographs available online”. Is that 16.8 million? And this “Courtesy Removal Service” sounds a little like blackmail to me.

  3. Oops. I did in fact drop the word “million” in the second-to-last paragraph of the post. As one careful reader of the post observed, the availability of 16.8 million mugshots online implicates one heck of a collective privacy interest!

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