By Clair McFarland, Cowboy State Daily
A bill that would prevent the release of a person’s mugshot until convicted was approved Monday by a House committee.
Wyoming House Judiciary Committee members voted 5-4 to send House Bill 51 on for a full review on the House floor.
If it becomes law, HB51 would forbid law enforcement agencies from releasing defendants’ arrest mugshots to the public, including news outlets, until those defendants are convicted.
During the committee meeting Monday morning, State Rep. Ember Oakley, R-Riverton, amended the bill to allow police agencies to release mugshots for any “legitimate law enforcement interest or purpose.” She took out language specifying mugshots could be released only in response to court orders or investigative needs.
Internal Policy Instead?
Although Oakley later voted in favor of the bill, she suggested to proponents that perhaps sheriff’s offices throughout Wyoming could, instead of seeking a law, simply exercise discretion in which mugshots they release.
The current law states that authorities “may” release booking photos. In law, a “shall” is a mandate; generally “may” is an option.
Bill sponsor Rep. Chad Banks, D-Rock Springs, countered that the sheriff of Sweetwater County, who favors the change, may doubt whether “he has the leverage not to share those photos.”
“I’m not sure whether (the media) are willing to give that up without legal pushback,” Banks added, saying the photos could be considered good “clickbait.”
State Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, offered an addition to the bill that would let people sue news publishers releasing mugshots for “pecuniary or financial gain,” but that addition was rejected by the entire committee.
Lifelong Rock Springs resident Wing Lew testified before the committee regarding his arrest in May 22, 2020, after which his mugshot was disseminated.
At about 11:30 at night, he said, he was headed home from work and was pulled over from Rock Springs police for failure to maintain a single lane of traffic.
A breathalyzer test registered no alcohol in his system, but he “didn’t do so well standing on one leg” during his field sobriety test. Lew was taken to Sweetwater County Jail and incarcerated.
A second breathalyzer test at the jail again came back negative and a blood test for controlled substances – which did not return for about two months – also was negative.
Lew was “bonded out” that night after his booking; after his mugshot was taken.
“On Rocketminer.com, my mugshot was there,” along with an allegation of driving under the influence of controlled substances.
Lew said he was “disappointed and actually very very mad.”
All charges were dismissed after the blood test returned.
“Myself and my family are dependent on the local community for a living. I was extremely embarrassed of what happened,” said Lew. “I was wondering, well, were a lot of the people in the community not patronizing me because they didn’t want to patronize a person possibly doing something illegal, pills or meth or otherwise, while preparing their food?”
Lew later clarified that he couldn’t tell whether he lost revenue over the incident, but he considered the damage to his reputation more detrimental.
State Rep. Art Washut, R-Casper, explained his vote against the bill by saying mugshots are not always responsible for a person’s embarrassment
“The same damage would have been done to (Lew’s) reputation” if a headline about his arrest had run with a photo of him at a chamber of commerce event, Washut said.
“I don’t think this bill solves the problem we’re supposed to solve,” he said.
State Rep. Rachel Rodriguez-Williams, R-Cody, also voted nay, saying “anybody can drive by a police scene” and capture an arrest with their cell phone.
State Rep. Mike Yin, D-Jackson, countered that mugshots are unique because people are “not at their best,” when they’re taken.
“The court of public opinion is pretty harsh,” added State Rep. Karlee Provenza, D-Laramie, agreeing with Yin.