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West Virginia House Judiciary Committee debates mugshots, DNA collection

By Steven Allen Adams, The Parkersburg News and Sentinel

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Members of the House Judiciary Committee debated two bills Wednesday afternoon dealing with the availability of mugshots of those arrested for crimes, and whether to allow for DNA collection for those merely under arrest.

The committee amended and recommended House Bill 4621 for passage Wednesday. The bill would prohibit the release of arrest and booking photos — sometimes called mugshots — by the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation unless the individual is an imminent threat to public safety, a fugitive from justice, if a court determines the mugshot should be released, or if the individual is convicted or pleads to a lesser offense.

A committee substitute for HB 4621 approved Wednesday would require websites that profit off the distribution of mugshots to remove the photos or open themselves up to civil lawsuits. These websites often charge fees for the removal of mugshots. These websites would have to remove older mugshots if an individual requests so if the person was acquitted of the criminal charge, not prosecuted, or had the charge expunged, vacated, or pardoned.

The bill would state that booking photographs are not considered public record and not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. But an individual can request their own booking photo. DCR and law enforcement would have to include disclaimers for released photos stating the person is innocent until proven guilty, and it protects law enforcement and DCR from civil liability.

“This is a most prudent, effective way to protect people from having their mugshots distributed before they have been fully adjudicated,” said Del. Larry Kump, R-Berkeley.

Several committee members opposed the bill, including Del. Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, raising concerns about the public not having full access to information about individuals in their communities facing criminal charges. While other information about incarcerated individuals would still be public, Steele cited issues at the Southern Regional Jail where several inmates have died as a need to keep access to booking photos.

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