Is it appropriate to release police mug shot in internet era?

By Wen Yi Source:Global Times Published: 2018/9/5 22:28:42

Chinese tech executive and billionaire Liu Qiangdong, known as Richard Liu in the English-speaking world, has become the talk of the town since he was arrested on suspicion of sexual misconduct in the US last Friday. He was freed on Saturday without having to post bail and has returned to China.

As the founder of China's top online retailer, Liu is famous throughout the country. Now, every American knows him too, as his mug shot, taken by law enforcement officials in Minnesota, is everywhere online. Just as the cliché goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. So far, the only information the general public knows about the case is what the police have released and the startling mug shot of Liu, who is dressed in orange prison garb. 

A glimpse of an arrestee's mug shot often raises questions like "Who is she" or "How do I feel about him?" The answers to these questions are inevitably "She must have done something wrong" or "He's a bad guy." In other words, police mug shots stigmatize individuals as criminal offenders even if they are eventually not charged or convicted of a crime.

So why are mug shots released to the public?

While in China, mug shots of suspects are not usually released, it is lawful to release them in most states in the US. Some police departments believe it plays an important role in transparency and is a service to their jurisdictions. Supporters argue that mug shots are a matter of public record and that releasing them is protected by the First Amendment, which states that "Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech." But opponents say that making mug shots publicly available turns an investigative tool into a lifelong punishment.

So far, the debate over whether a matter of public record trumps an individual's right to privacy is still going on in the US.

Going back to Liu's case, we find that it involves the very fodder of a fascinating news story that would raise one's eyebrows - a self-made tycoon, a listed company, sex and money. Now public opinion ranges from support and disbelief to conspiracy theories, in which Liu was intentionally framed by someone who either is eager to be famous or wants to defame his company. The US police have therefore unwittingly become part of this conspiracy theory, and their role has been exploited during the law enforcement process, a scene that does not only happen in movies.

A mug shot helps propel this speculation. And the internet and social media also facilitates the spread of rumors. The US police can argue that their posting of Liu's mug shot is legal, but it has led to a confusion of opinions. The police will not take responsibility for this, but who should?

The US prides itself on the rule of law. Yet in an era when the internet and social media are flourishing, it is time for the US to ponder if its legal system is behind the times.

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