WTVM SPECIAL REPORT: Mugshot Mania - WTVM.com-Columbus, GA News Weather & Sports

WTVM SPECIAL REPORT: Mugshot Mania

COLUMBUS, GA (WTVM) – What if your face was spread all over town after one mistake landed you on the front page?

Is that even legal?

You see them at the gas stations or convenience stores at check outs - these mugshot tabloids are everywhere, loaded with hundreds of photos of people at what might be the worst moment of their lives.

They are controversial with some folks believing they serve no purpose other than to embarrass. Some see it as a modern day gossip column, the ultimate airing of dirty laundry.

"Some people look at it as a source of entertainment, they enjoy looking at it seeing if they know somebody in there," explained Brian Nelson, a barber in Columbus. 

This newspaper The Joint is a virtual "who's who" of accused law-breakers printed twice a month.

It features some 20 pages of mugshots of people booked into the jails of Muscogee, Russell and Harris counties. If you've got a dollar, you can "read all about it" whether the folks in these mugshots want you to or not.

"It sells because people like to see ‘mess' so that's another reason why they like to read it," said Kayla Young, who doesn't like the tabloid papers. 

The owner of The Joint did not want us to identify him and wouldn't talk on camera for fear of reprisal from those angry about the paper.

His paper and others like it across the country have popped up in the last few years as part of a new and rapidly growing industry of tabloid papers publishing mugshots from public websites and making them readily available at your nearest convenience store.

From the most minor misdemeanor to the most serious felony, if you're arrested in Muscogee County, there's a good chance your mugshot will be out there for the world to see.

"I had a relative who actually lost his job because he was in the Joint paper for a DUI," Kayla said. "It's ridiculous to me... it's an arrest and that's it."

And that's why many people "take issue" with these papers. Dr. Fred Gordon, head of the Political Science Department at CSU, says it is a valid concern.

"One of the problems here when you look at these mugshots, they are artifacts of an arrest and not proof of conviction and that's where the problem comes in," Dr. Gordon said. 

While Dr. Gordon says the First Amendment is what gives publishers the right to print papers like these, there are many who worry that they fly in the face of the Fourth Amendment, which gives us the right to privacy.

"It's about what we're willing to do to protect our privacy, a challenge to our basic civil liberties," Dr. Gordon said. "We have seen in the post 911 world we give up a little privacy to protect our security. Can we stretch that to this case here or are we taking our privacy and diminishing it too much and is it really in terms of protecting security?"

Editors of these tabloid papers say they are performing a public service, providing "need to know" information to the community.

But Muscogee County Sheriff John Darr doesn't necessarily agree. Though he does make the mugshots available to these publications, in some instances he says they do more harm than good.

"If an individual is arrested and then later on found not guilty or case is dropped or dismissed and then you're right the damage is done, so I would prefer it after the fact," Darr said. 

"On some jobs people take the paper and put it in the break room on a certain page and I think that's real foul and I know some people that have had that done to them and that's not cool," Brian said. 

You'll get no argument from 22-year-old Christian Stewart. His mugshot was in The Joint last month after he was arrested for marijuana possession.

When we saw him at the Muscogee County Jail, he'd been arrested again for the same thing, but he doesn't feel that's anybody's business. 

"I don't want my boss to know I smoke weed on my personal time," Christian said. "It's giving up personal information."

Dr. Gordon believes this debate over the legality of these papers is definitely not over and that the courts will ultimately have to address the issue.  

Georgia lawmakers addressed part of it last year, passing House Bill 845 which makes it illegal for publications to charge people to have their mugshots removed from their papers or websites.

Another Georgia law allows people to get their photos taken down for free if their charges are dropped or they are acquitted. 

For now though the presses will continue to roll, as will the "mugshot mania" and there's really only one way to be certain your face doesn't end up in a place like this.

"Not to be arrested is the most obvious thing but once you're arrested and it goes into the system and whoever gets it gets it," Darr said. 

While Georgia has laws in place to try and protect people whose mugshots appear in these publications or online, Alabama has failed to pass any such laws.

Join the conversation on social media by using the #MugshotMania.

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