How to Lookup Mugshots and Search for Booking Photos

Oct 11, 2022 - By Ariana Manikas

When a person is arrested and booked for a criminal charge, one of the steps the jail takes in processing them is to photograph the offender. This is a forward-facing portrait that includes the shoulders and upper torso. Most mugshots have the offender’s height and the registration number assigned by the jail. These are then included in the file of the offender.

The practice of taking mug shots started around the 1840s. It ws intended to create a photographic record of an arrested party, so identification by victims, the public, and investigators could occur. 

Are Mugshots Public Records?

Public records have been debated and even brought before judges regarding whether mugshots are true. A 2017 ruling in the Massachusetts Suffolk County Superior Court found that law enforcement agencies in Massachusetts can’t use the state’s criminal records law to withhold lists of people jailed, mug shots of police officers who are arrested, and police reports involving public officials accused of breaking the law. The consensus is that mugshots are public records and that once they exist, it is tough to make them disappear.

Can You Look Up Mugshots Online?

It is easy to look up mugshots online, and several channels can be used. Some websites allow you to enter some basic information, such as the name and state they were arrested, and provide a copy of the mug shot. These websites usually do so for a nominal per search or membership fee. There are also state and federal registries that allow you to look for criminal records, including mug shots. State and federal registries are usually free, but the search is more time-consuming, and you are limited to the records of the state or federal division you are perusing.

How Long Does It Take for Mugshots to Appear Online?

On average, mugshots appear online after an arrest in one to three days. Due to the online presence of most law enforcement activities, in some cases, mugshots can appear online in a manner of minutes. It can add to the embarrassment of getting arrested, particularly for public figures and celebrities. Some states have passed legislation that protects the privacy of their residents, and their records and mug shots may be less readily available. Individuals will sometimes go as far as to pay private companies to scrub their online presence of anything embarrassing, like a mug shot; such services are not 100% effective and very expensive.

FOIA and Mugshots

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a federal statute designed to increase government transparency by giving the public access to information about the government. Much information can be requested under FOIA, but mugshots and criminal records are an exemption from what has to be made public. FOIA Exemption 7(C) allows the government to withhold “records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes” when the disclosure “could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” This leaves state courts and jurisdictions to interpret if mugshots can be made available as part of FOIA on a case-by-case basis. 

Search for Arrest Records & Criminal Records

Finding arrest and criminal records can serve several purposes for individuals and organizations. It can help verify that people you let into your home are safe and trustworthy, or it can help you better serve individuals with a criminal record looking for legal or social help. Specific job roles, such as working with children or managing assets, may require a criminal records check. Regardless of the reason, explore the following resources when searching for criminal records:

State Registries: If you know the state where the arrest happened, you can start by searching the government websites containing records. These are free resources, but it can be time-consuming to navigate the layers of bureaucracy and to locate the correct department. The upside is that state departments are usually staffed during the day, so you can call in and get some help.

Federal Registries: If you are searching for records related to a federal crime, you can start with national registries maintained by the federal departments that deal with criminal histories, such as the Department of Justice (DOJ). These are also free but pose similar challenges as state registries.

Private Search Websites: using a personal search website like InfoTracer is often a helpful shortcut. You can let the system search thousands of public records for a small fee. There are situations when the search will not pull anything up, but this would likely happen with state and federal registries after hours of work.

How to Remove a Mugshot 

Removing a mugshot from the internet is not an easy process. It helps to start by researching what protections your jurisdiction has to protect peoples’ privacy. Suppose there have been rulings that protect privacy by sealing criminal records and making them unavailable online. In that case, you can use that to petition directly to a web admin of the site in question and ask for the removal of your documents. You can also explore getting legal help for this, which can carry a considerable cost. To remove your criminal record from Google, you will need to file a petition with the court and ask for the arrest record and other records to be expunged or sealed. If the court hearing is successful, you can then send the expungement order to Google. Private services can help you with this process from start to finish, but they charge a fee.

Mugshots have been around for a long time, and they continue to be common practice with arrests. Whether you are looking for a mugshot record or exploring how to protect your sensitive information online, there are many resources available that can serve as a resource for you. In accessing mug shots, it is essential to weigh the need for this information against the privacy laws of different jurisdictions. Remembering that you are dealing with sensitive information is also a priority. Criminal records and mugshots can shed light on a person’s history and put their experiences in context.