How Criminal Mugshots Have Evolved Over Time

criminal mugshots

How Cricriminal mugshotsminal Mugshots Have Evolved Over Time

Since the invention of daguerreotype photography in 1839, pictures have literally spoken a thousand words. From the infamous Chicago Fire to 9/11, photos have frozen some of America’s most notorious gangsters, tragedies and evolving technology. In criminology, photography makes sure criminals new and old are stored locally, and nationally, for reasons we still debate today.

Mugshots are over 175 years old, although it took French police almost 50 years to standardize the process.

Let’s dive into the necessity and legality of criminal photos.

History of mugshots

It’s believed the earliest known mugshots were taken in Belgium, somewhere between 1843 and 1844, although U.K police both in Birmingham and Liverpool started taking criminal photos in 1848. American law enforcement adopted this ingenious method of capturing pictures of suspects around 1857 as evidenced in the NYPD’s collection of daguerreotypes adorning their walls.

From there, mugshots increased their usefulness when Pinkerton National Detective Agency started putting criminal pictures on wanted posters, boasting the biggest collection of such photography by the 1870s. Alexander Gardner’s photographic work during the Lincoln assassination trial was thought to have inspired wanted posters.

As mugshots evolved, a placard was held with information pertaining to a police department’s internal files, such as DOB, an ID number, name, height and weight. Today, with technology expanding how information is collected and stored, mugshots are instantly shared with numerous local, state and federal databases, and in some cases, are available online when sold or shared with outside agencies.

Why do mugshots mean so much?

During the early to mid-1900s, photographs were all police had to work with when trying to locate criminal suspects. Coupled with information offered by witnesses, locating suspects in murders, robberies, and bootlegging crimes during Prohibition was much easier. Without mugshots, all detectives had to work with were a witness’s account of what happened – if any witnesses existed.

Today, mugshots work alongside forensic science to put fingerprints to a face, then a face to name. With DNA being taken when defendants are sentenced in criminal cases, investigating future crimes committed by repeat offenders is much simpler since law enforcement will have mugshot, fingerprints, DNA and other identifying information to work with.

Unfortunately, mugshots are pulled from law enforcement websites and used to extort reformed criminals out of money in exchange for removal of photos found online. In rarer cases, mugshots are fabricated for people who not only never committed crimes, but are deceased.

To law enforcement, mugshots and arrest records offer a treasure trove of information with limitless investigative value. Some, however, do question the legality of releasing mugshots to private entities when suspects haven’t been arraigned, much less found guilty.

Legal opinions of mugshots

Barnes v. United States, a 1966 case where the defendant was accused of assault, housebreaking and grand larceny, was reversed and remanded based off the prosecution’s admission of mugshot photography against the will of defense counsel. Since the implication was that the defendant had a rap sheet, the jury was thought to be “tainted” due to the mugshot presented to them.

According to The Handbook of Massachusetts Evidence, prosecutors must only use mugshots in jury trials when the jury must be acquainted with the defendant’s photo, and not its source.

In 2016, Politico reported that federal mugshot photos would no longer be publicly available due to their damaging effects on an individual’s right to a fair trial.

Can criminal defense attorneys shield these during trial?

With prosecution looking to strengthen their case against defendants, criminal defense teams often work on discrediting, or at least getting deemed inadmissible, evidence presented to juries. While it’s impossible to shield juries from information they need to make legally sound decisions, a booking photo of an individual with no criminal record could be deemed “damning” to a defense’s case. Attorneys may act accordingly.

Mugshots only prove you were detained or arrested; they don’t, however, prove you committed a crime.  Click here for information on getting out of jail after a criminal arrest in Arizona.