WFLA News Channel 8 recently published the Pinellas booking photos of persons arrested for DUI over this past Fourth of July holiday. This decision was out of character for an otherwise respected media outlet. Publishing the photos in the form of an “online slide show” served no legitimate news reporting purpose. Likewise, these photos could not be considered to serve as a deterrent to the dangers of drinking and driving. Keep in mind, the publication of the booking photos only came after the holiday and after the imbibing of alcohol that typically accompanies Fourth of July festivities.
Profiting From DUI Booking Photos?
The selective publication of these arrest photos was unjust and unfair to those persons already suffering the humiliation of having been incarcerated in the Pinellas county jail. After all, these people had not committed the “crime of the century.” Consider that in 2011 alone, over 1.2 million drivers were arrested for DUI. What makes these particular Pinellas county drivers so worthy of public shaming? It would have been a perfectly legitimate news story to publish the number of people arrested and compare those statistics with last year’s arrest numbers. But, simply uploading the DUI booking photographs to the web was an act of “sensationalism” designed only to increase the number of “hits” to the WFLA website. After all, more viewers to their website translates into increased advertising revenue.
The DUI “Booking Photo Slide Show,” is accompanied by paid advertisements from Nissan, AT&T, Citi Bank, The Plantation on Crystal River, Network Solutions, The University of Tampa, Cyber Investigation Services, LLC, Hula Bay Waterfront Bar & Grille, Pitney Bowes Postage Machines, Ritz Crackers, The Bonati Institute, McDonalds, Mercedes Benz, Adventure Island and Southwest Airline. To make matters worse, some of the paid advertisements are embedded within the slide show itself.
DUI: A Different Kind of Crime
Most criminal offenses require “criminal intent” or “Mens rea.” This legal concept means that a state prosecutor must prove that the accused “intended” to commit the criminal offense. It is unlikely that anyone has ever awoken in the morning and said to themselves “Today I am going to consume an excessive amount of alcohol and then violate the law by operating my vehicle while impaired.” A DUI charge is thus fairly unique in that it does not require proof that the driver ever “intended” to commit the crime. Rather, driving under the influence is considered a “strict liability” offense that punishes the “act” itself, absent any showing that the person possessed the normal prerequisite criminal intent.
Conduct Worthy of the Scarlett Letter?
Remember, that the offense of DUI is committed only after an individual consumes alcohol and then exercises poor judgment by imprudently getting behind the wheel of his car. The driver’s clear thinking was debilitated when he chose to operate his vehicle. However, his genuine underlying character and fitness remain unscathed, since in most cases, it was never his intention to disrespect the law. In this regard, it would seem more appropriate for the media to bring special attention to persons who acted out of ill will, as opposed to impaired judgment. A first time DUI offense is classified in Florida as neither a misdemeanor nor a felony. Rather, it is defined as a “criminal traffic” offense. Does an arrest for an unintended criminal traffic offense, in and of itself, justify the permanent publication and mass dissemination of a person’s booking photo on the Internet?
People from all walks of life can find themselves facing a DUI charge. No group of persons are invulnerable from making poor choices when impaired from alcohol, illegal drugs or even their prescription medication. For most of the people who suffered the indignity of having their Fourth of July booking photograph published, their DUI charge will represent the first and last occasion they will experience the trauma of being arrested. Despite the isolated nature of their conduct, WFLA decided to brand these individuals with the information age equivalent of the “scarlet letter” - the online mugshot. Unlike one-day printed media publications, an online mugshot is accessible from every search engine and can remain in cyberspace for nearly eternity.
Online Booking Photographs – A Privilege, Not a Cash Cow
For the past nine years, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Department provided online mugshots of everyone booked into the Pinellas County Jail. The easy access allowed routine data mining of these images through the “Who’s in Jail” webpage of the law enforcement agency’s website. However, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri terminated that practice on January 13, 2014, in an effort to prevent what he said was the exploitation of images of arrested persons by profit-motivated mugshot publishing websites. See: “Pinellas Sheriff Removes Online Booking Photos to Stamp Out Mugshot Websites.”
Despite the newly imposed ban on downloading the images, reputable news media outlets continue to have full and lawful access to the Pinellas County Jail’s booking photos. That’s because news reporters are expected to strive for objectivity and fairness. However, in this case, WFLA’s actions fall squarely in the same realm as the profit oriented mugshot websites – a business practice built on unfairly shaming people through the widespread dissemination of digital arrest booking photographs.
An Ethical Obligation to Draw the Line
None of the individuals arrested for DUI over the Fourth of July weekend were public figures, elected government officials or persons of notoriety. The facts and circumstances of their DUI cases were routine and did not warrant any special attention. Thus, neither a legitimate news worthy story nor a genuine public interest was served by publishing their mugshots on the internet.
In the future, WFLA should exercise greater discretion when procuring and publishing booking photo images. As for now, WFLA should “do the right thing” and delete the “Fourth of July DUI Mugshot Slide Show” from its website.
At Russo & Russo, we are Pinellas attorneys who represent clients charged with Driving Under the Influence and other criminal offenses arising out of St. Petersburg, Clearwater, and the Pinellas County area.
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