Mugshots In California

Jerry Brown

Gov. Jerry Brown signing a Senate bill into law.

Courtesy of the Washington Times

Mugshots in California form part of criminal investigation records and are compiled by public law enforcement agencies when an arrest is made. In essence, arrests are made on the suspicion that an apprehended person is involved in a crime or planning to commit one. However, arrests do not always lead to a charge or conviction. In California, the arrest rate has dropped over 50 percent since its 1989 peak, and now more than half of arrest cases do not proceed to a charge or conviction. This means that while mugshots are included in arrest records for identification purposes, they do not imply guilt.

Though under the jurisdiction of law enforcement agencies, arrest records (which include mugshots) are considered public records accessible to everyone. However, some states and local governments have different laws restricting access to mugshots. In recent years, booking photographs obtained from law enforcement databases have surfaced on commercial mugshot aggregation sites. Some of these commercial sites charge fees to “de-publish” booking photographs hosted on their websites. The mugshot publishing business is considered a niche market of tabloid journalism in the United States and the state of California. Detractors claim that the industry is feeding on a populace that needs to perform background checks on a person renting a home, applying for a job, taking out an insurance policy, soliciting a license, or even going on a date. When mugshots appear in these searches, regardless of actual guilt, it can affect a person’s credibility and reputation.

The negative influence of the widespread distribution of copied mugshotscoupled with extortion practices of these commercial mugshot sites has generated a nationwide debate with cases from California at the forefront. While mugshots are considered public records, it became expedient to either regulate the practices of these mugshot aggregating sites or prohibit the sites from charging fees forremoval services. The state of California in a status signed into law by Governor Jerry Brownon August 15, 2014, decided to restrict the commercial use of mugshots by prohibiting a person who publishes criminal record information via print or electronic means from soliciting or accepting a fee or other consideration to remove, correct, or modify that information.

Attorney General Xavier Becerra

California’s Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in 2018 that the state would be filing criminal extortion charges against members of a mugshot upload site. This came as certain publishers of mugshots charged high fees to remove photos, even if a person was not convicted of a crime.

Courtesy of the Sacramento Bee

The California Controversy of Mugshot Use

The bill to clamp down on extortion activities of commercial mugshot sites was championed by Senator Jerry Hill representing the 13th Senate District in the California Legislature and took effect from January 1, 2015. In addition to prohibiting extortion, the law (SB 1027) also establishes civil penalties for violations where the victim can sue for damages equal to the greater of $1,000 per violation or the actual damages suffered.The claim for damages also extends to the costs of hiring an attorney, and any other legal or equitable relief. This law takes into account the rising controversy surrounding limiting access to mugshots wherein critics argue for access to mugshots as an important part of journalistic coverage, freedom of speech and the public’s right to know. Because of this, SB 1027 does not restrict access to arrest records and booking photos by the media and interested individuals.

The weight of this law was tested in 2018 when the California Attorney General Xavier Becerra filed extortion and money laundering charges against the owners of a website that published mugshot photos and charged a fee to remove them. This was in response to an affidavit filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court highlighting payment of hundreds of dollars by California residents to have their booking photographs removed from the website. Some of the victims in the case include a Ventura resident sharing the same name with his late father arrested in 1998 but not charged with a crime, a Los Angeles man with an overturned rape conviction and another Los Angeles residents with a dropped charge. The Office of Attorney General alleged that the website in a three-year period extorted "at least $64,000 in removal fees from 175 Californians". Consequent on this charge, the four owners of the mugshot site were arrested in May 2018.

Finding Mugshots in California

Under the California Public Records Act (CPRA), a resident has the statutory right to inspect a vast number of California's public records of which include arrest records. Mugshots are inclusive in arrest records along with other personal information including suspect's full name, date of birth, sex, physical characteristics, time of arrest, charges, etc. In the state of California, some government websites provide avenues for viewing the mugshots of arrested individuals. These include inmate locator sites such as the California state archives or the website of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. These sites offer both current and historical arrest records where you can find mugshots of suspects or convicts arrested in the State. The California DCR has the database of all juvenile and adult criminals who are sentenced or on parole or perhaps on probation,and it is updated daily.

Also, a visit to the California extension of the site offers information about arrests and prison inmates (often along with mugshots) utilizing a powerful search feature. Alternatively, online directories of California jails also provide mugshots along with arrest information. However, these directories mostly offer booking mugshots of inmates currently in custody. Though, a search on a search engine with the name of an inmate or suspect can often yield successful results, albeit without any accompanying information. To obtain detailed information through a formal means will require a physical visit to the prison where the inmate in question is held or a visit to the website of the California Department of Justice.

Access to criminal records held on the DOJ website is limited by law to legitimate law enforcement purposes and authorized applicant agencies. However, the law provides for the right of an individual checking personal criminal records for accuracy or completeness. Residents requesting California Criminal Records via the California DOJ website are required to download a 'Live Scan Form' and select the "Record Review" as the type of request. This form is then taken to the local law enforcement office for finger-printing which costs $25. Criminal records archived by the DOJ include the arrests, detentions and dispositions records submitted by law enforcement agencies and the courts. Such records are maintained until the subject reaches the age of 100 years old.

Vintage mugshot

Vintage mugshot from California state prison 1910 of man; W.D. Livingston wanted for forgery.

Courtesy of

Sealing an Arrest Record in California

A Senate Bill signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown on October 11, 2017, which has now been codified in California Penal Code 851.87 PC provides for the right of a person arrested but never convicted to have his California arrest records sealed automatically. Sealing an arrest record means the record (along with the accompanying mugshot) will not show up on most criminal background checks in California, other than to law enforcement.

This Penal Code extends this right to persons in cases where no criminal charges were ever filed, criminal charges were filed but later dismissed, found “not guilty” (acquitted) in a jury trial, or conviction was vacated or overturned on appeal. A defendant who has successfully completed a pretrial diversion or a pre-sentencing program, such as Prop 36 drug treatment or Penal Code 1000 deferred entry of judgment can also enjoy this right. Persons with a history of arrests or convictions for domestic violence, child abuse, or elder abuse are exempted from this right unless where a judge determines that sealing such criminal records would serve the interests of justice.

The process of sealing/cleaning up a criminal record begins with knowing the details on a person's criminal record. Afterward, the person may request a court to seal the arrest or criminal record which will be sealed (not made available to the public) if the judge determines that the person has met the requirements.