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North Dakota House defeats bill that sought to make mug shots confidential

The bill's sponsor may seek a second vote on the legislation if she can find enough support.

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BISMARCK — North Dakota lawmakers rejected on Monday, Feb. 15, a bill that would make mug shots confidential in most cases , but the sponsor of the proposed legislation may ask for a second vote on Tuesday.

In a 49-45 vote, House members voted down House Bill 1296, which would ban law enforcement from releasing jail booking photos to the public until an arrestee is convicted.

Under the bill, officers could release mug shots of an arrestee if there's a "compelling public safety or law enforcement interest warranting release," such as the defendant becoming a fugitive or failing to appear in court. Officers could also share mug shots with other law enforcement agencies.

Proponents of the bill said a person has the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. Releasing mug shots before a conviction gives some the impression that a person is guilty before they have their day in court, said Rep. Mike Lefor, R-Dickinson.

Mug shots currently are open records in North Dakota.

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Rep. Bill Devlin, R-Finley, a former newspaper publisher, said the public has the right to know who is being arrested, but this bill would violate that right. The good of booking photos being public records "far outweighs any negative consequences," he said.

Rep. Shannon Roers Jones, a Fargo Republican who sponsored the bill, said that someone who's arrested but has their charges dropped must live with the fact that their mug shot was released to the public. She noted the case of a Cass County man suspected of killing another person, only to be vindicated before he was charged because prosecutors determined he acted in self-defense.

The Cass County Sheriff's Office made the man's mug shot available to the public. “And yet, those photographs of him in an orange jumpsuit live forever on the internet,” she said.

Devlin said he has sympathy for such people, but noted that the number of people who are arrested but not charged is very low. Rep. Austen Schauer backed that up with 2018 data from Cass County: Out of 9,094 jail bookings, six people had all of their charges dropped.

The bill gives more consideration to defendants than victims and their pain, said Schauer, R-West Fargo.

Law enforcement also expressed concern about meeting the bill's standard for releasing a mug shot. Rep. Pat Heinert, a Bismarck Republican who's also a retired Burleigh County sheriff, said that under the bill, an officer who wrongly releases a mug shot could face a Class C felony, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison.

“We ruined that law enforcement officer’s career,” he said.

Heinert said the bill writers didn't consider other aspects of law enforcement or public safety. He pointed to the case of a man who was arrested on drug charges who shared the name of a prominent figure in Bismarck.

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"Do you know how much pain and agony we put that other party through just because they had a similar name?" Heinert asked.

Devlin noted that publicizing a mug shot can help solve crimes or prevent them if a person recognizes a face.

Roers Jones said she may request that the House vote on the bill again if she can find enough support.

Forum News Service reporter Jeremy Turley contributed to this report.

Shannon Roers Jones. Special to The Forum
Shannon Roers Jones

April Baumgarten joined The Forum in February 2019 as an investigative reporter. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, N.D., where her family raises Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at the University of Jamestown, N.D.
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