A lot of discussion around Trump’s lawsuit has focused on whether the former president’s gunshots will be taken and released to the public. The focus on a relatively mundane part of the crime scene reflects how much Americans value the mug shot, a modern digital artifact that causes severe public embarrassment for many, but helps Trump further his agenda. In the digital punitive ecosystem, what often renders others powerless may help Trump regain control of the prosecution.
We love mug shots. The images are symbols of society’s transgressors, they feed our voyeuristic tendencies by looking at the often opaque workings of the criminal justice system, and once released, they can be used for piracy and click profits.
Mug shots are inexpensive to obtain through basic web scraping or Freedom of Information Act requests, but can be extremely valuable to third parties who source and repost them.
Decades of digitization – and subsequent bending of transparency laws to mass disclosure and instant availability of mugshots – have created new sources of profit for newspaper websites, and fueled online piracy schemes. Shady websites overcharge mug shot subjects to get rid of them.
Footage of muggings in the US is routinely released and becomes a source of information, used to train facial recognition software or stored in a vast database to locate suspects caught on camera (although this has been seen as a serious failure – with serious consequences). Mug shots are used to fill the space on local police department Facebook pages to show the public how well tax dollars are being spent, and careless Google image search results people have to repeatedly explain to employers, landlords, families. members, and friends. Studies estimate that local law enforcement agencies release more than 4 million mug shots per year directly to the Internet, where they are downloaded and reposted, over and over again.
For the individual caught in the picture, the consequences can be devastating and lifelong. And remember, shots are taken well before offense. They reflect only the government’s case. In this sense, the Mog shot represents another state power—the ability to find someone guilty before they face the jury of their peers. There’s a good reason why mug shots aren’t regularly published on the internet, especially since they don’t tell us reliable information about the person in the photo; Instead, they tell us more about who the police decide to arrest, which is fundamentally shaped by race, social class, and neighborhood. The permanence of digital mug shots violates the presumption of innocence and can even cover legal penalties associated with convictions because 80 percent of arrests are for low-level incidents.
That said, we don’t know if a Trump mug shot exists. New York doesn’t necessarily release a mug shot. State Law § 160.10 requires a person to be fingerprinted but does not require a mug shot. In fact, Trump’s lawyers say a mug shot is impossible because he is so well-known.