It’s a common factor shared between passport and driver’s license photos: neither of them shows the subject in the best light. But without exception, nobody looks good in a mugshot. Bureaucratic photography is in its harshest form here, taken not to flatter the subject nor to commemorate a celebratory event, but for the brute purpose of identification.
Mugshots are one of the oldest methods of tracking the subjects law enforcement has to deal with, tracing back to the invention of the camera. Predating more modern methods of individual identification, mugshots and fingerprints were mostly what law enforcement professionals had to work with. They’re so handy that the practice is still done today.
The many purposes of mugshots
Mugshots serve many more purposes than just helping law enforcement keep tabs on people in custody. They serve as a means of witness identification when applicable. They also help guard the civil rights of people in custody. In countries that do not have much in the way of constitutional rights for prisoners, it is far too easy for a person arrested to be “disappeared” into the system. By documenting a person’s entrance into custody, the legal system is demonstrating the condition in which the person was arrested and the assumed identity of the subject. Cases of false arrest and mistaken identity have been cleared up after browsing and comparing mugshots.
Our legal system requires openness as part of constitutional rights. Even outside the domain of the arrested person’s civil rights, the public has the right to examine and scrutinize its practicing law enforcement through freedom of information laws. So while nobody likes having their mugshot taken, it still protects them through the measure of keeping the justice system honest.
Mugshots as part of a background check
The important aspect of mugshots in the context of a criminal background check is that mugshots are done at the time of arrest, notwithstanding the offense or outcome of their legal case. So even when the charges might be dropped later, or the arrested person has their day in court and is proven innocent, the mugshot stays there anyway. A mugshot search is a handy tool in quick background checks but should be treated as a lead up into further investigation, not the end of a background check itself.
The other handy thing about using mugshots is that they are made more accessible than other kinds of court records. The outcome of criminal cases may be subject to policies of privileged information, released only under official level queries, but mugshots can be re-published onto any old website. It’s just important to remember that by the standards of our legal system, every mugshot shows a person who is “innocent until proven guilty” at the time it was taken.
For a mugshot search, you will only need a full name, but a state and county help narrow your search down. You’ll also need any aliases of that person, such as legal name changes through marriage. Typically even close matches will come up, so middle names or variant spellings won’t be too much of an obstacle.
Where to go from a positive mugshot search result
Since mugshots are so accessible in public records, they’re used in everything from employment screenings to casual personal dating. In the event of a match, note the other information that the record brings up – typically the state and county the mugshot was taken and sometimes other data like date of birth. You can then use that information to further your investigation, finding out the offense and outcome of the charges.
What if you yourself come up in a mugshot search? Sorry, but you can’t have that record expunged. Even in cases where a subject was proven innocent and never got arrested again, the mugshot stays. But don’t feel like it’s that much of a mark against you. The most famous mugshot on the modern Internet is that of Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, arrested for a traffic ticket as a youngster. That photo remains on the web to this day, and it doesn’t seem to have slowed him down.