No one disputes that police charged O.J. Simpson with murder in 1994. But if some North Carolina lawmakers have their way, we could really be in hot water for saying so.
Leaders in the state Senate are so fed up with crime tabloids and mugshot websites that they sneaked an amendment to criminal records laws into the 2014-15 budget. It’s buried on the 210th page of a 275-page appropriations act, a legislative Trojan horse that its backers probably hoped would go unnoticed.
The amendment would require media outlets to issue retractions and purge from their public archives all reports of a person’s arrest if that person is later acquitted, if the charges are dismissed or if cases are resolved without a conviction. It purports to clear the names of those who are wrongfully accused, but rather than address the root causes of such mistakes, it seeks only to shoot the messenger.
Some websites post booking photos of every person arrested in a geographic area and offer those pictured the option of paying to have their mugshot, name and the charges they face removed. It’s an opportunistic and objectionable business model, to be sure. But it’s police and prosecutors — not private website operators — who bring the criminal charges.
If too many of these featured faces belong to the falsely accused, perhaps the General Assembly should concern itself with why innocent people are being arrested and jailed before it frets over where their booking photos end up. Which is the greater injustice: Locking a man or woman in a cell or merely reporting that local police have done so?
The amendment begins by preventing websites and other media outlets that publish mugshots from charging a fee for removal in cases of an acquittal or dismissed charge. But it doesn’t stop there.
When an arrestee notifies a newspaper, television station or website that a charge no longer stands, the amendment states, its operators would have 15 days to remove “or retract if removal is not possible” the mugshot, name and charges. The state would slap those who don’t comply with a $100 fine each week, and after 45 days, the amendment says, the aggrieved arrestee can sue for defamation of character.
Under the U.S. Constitution, criminal defendants enjoy a presumption of innocence. A charge is simply a formal accusation brought by the government that requires a person to appear in court. Saying that someone has been charged with murder is not tantamount to calling him a killer.
That brings us back to O.J. Simpson. When the media reports that police arrested a person and charged him or her with a crime, that fact remains true if the charge is later dismissed, or, as in Simpson’s case, a jury finds the defendant not guilty. By punishing media outlets that don’t recant those facts on demand, lawmakers aren’t really setting the record straight. They’re seeking to rewrite history.
If this provision takes effect, our state will likely spend millions in taxpayer money fighting a losing battle against the First Amendment in federal court. Forcing a newspaper to delete a story from its website is censorship. Strong-arming it into publishing a retraction is government-compelled speech. Those values are more suited to North Korea than North Carolina.
If the General Assembly is serious about protecting innocent people’s reputations, we suggest lawmakers worry less about mugshots that give the wrong impression and more about the justice system that’s producing them in the first place.