New Calif. law bars police from posting some mug shots to social media

The ban applies to suspects of nonviolent crimes unless the suspect is considered a fugitive or poses an imminent threat


By Vincent Moleski
The Sacramento Bee

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law Friday a bill prohibiting law enforcement agencies from posting booking photos of people suspected of nonviolent crimes to social media.

Assembly Bill 1475 forbids any police departments or sheriff’s offices in the state from sharing any mug shots of suspects of nonviolent crimes on social media platforms unless that suspect is considered a fugitive or poses an imminent threat.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during a news conference on May 26, 2021.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during a news conference on May 26, 2021. (Amy Osborne/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

The bill also provides that agencies must remove mug shots posted to social media of suspects of violent crimes if they were ultimately not charged, if they were found not guilty in court or if their records were sealed or expunged, upon request of the suspect.

AB 1475 passed the Assembly and Senate without significant opposition, and without organized resistance from law enforcement groups. No formal opposing arguments were submitted to the Senate or the Assembly.

The California Public Defenders Association and the American Civil Liberties Union provided statements of support to lawmakers, highlighting the detriment to the presumed innocence of the accused that the practice of posting mug shots to social media poses.

“Our criminal justice system is built on the premise that the accused is innocent until proven guilty, but the routine practice by some local police departments of posting mug shots on Facebook in order to shame and ridicule flies in the face of that premise,” the ACLU wrote in support of the bill. “AB 1475 will ensure that people who were found not guilty or were rehabilitated have one less barrier to obtaining employment and will not have to live in fear that a Facebook post ... will follow them forever.”

[READ: State your case: Should agencies stop distributing mug shots?]

The author of AB 1475, Assemblyman Evan Low, D-Campbell, said that the bill will help reduce racial bias and stereotyping in the public and in police forces, and will additionally prevent presumptions of guilt.

“When law enforcement agencies publish a person’s mug shot on Facebook or other social media without waiting for a conviction or even for charges to be formally filed, internet mobs rush to judgment,” Low said in a statement to lawmakers prior to the bill’s signing into law. “The mug shots that law enforcement agencies post on social media are often unflattering and rarely warn the public of an ongoing safety threat, as the suspect is already in custody at the time of posting. Instead, the purpose of posting these images often is to shame and ridicule suspects.”

The California Public Defenders Association agreed that the publicizing of mug shots impacts a defendant’s presumption of innocence, and that social media posts continue to haunt them even after going through the legal process.

“CPDA members can attest that unfettered pretrial publicity leads to wrongful convictions through biased identifications, prejudice within our jury pools, and decreased safety for our incarcerated clients,” the group said in a statement to lawmakers. “Our clients whose cases are dismissed, successfully win at trial, or are fully rehabilitated are still stigmatized by their past publicity on the internet.”

In 2014, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill barring websites from posting mug shots and requiring a fee to remove them from the internet. The text of AB 1475 also references the July 2020 decision by the San Francisco Police Department to not release mug shots in most instances. At the time, Chief Bill Scott said that widespread publication of mug shots “creates an illusory correlation for viewers that fosters racial bias and vastly overstates the propensity of black and brown men to engage in criminal behavior,” a quote adopted in part into the bill’s first section.

The law is retroactive, meaning that a person can request that agencies remove their previously posted mug shots.

The Sacramento Bee in July 2020 enacted a new policy that restricted the use of most suspect mug shots. The policy made exceptions only for booking photos of public figures, suspected serial killers, those suspected of hate crimes and suspects who pose a widespread threat to public safety.

©2021 The Sacramento Bee. Visit at sacbee.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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