HELENA — A Montana legislative panel has approved a measure that would bar the public release of mug shots until after a person is convicted of a crime.

The House Judiciary Committee voted 11-8 Wednesday to send the bill to the full House.

The original version of the bill would have backed a Park County judge's ruling that booking photographs are public information and not confidential criminal justice information.

However, House Judiciary Chairman Alan Doane amended the bill to do the opposite. The bill now says booking photos can be released before conviction only if a judge considers it necessary or if the accused consents to the release.

The Montana Newspaper Association and Democrats on the committee objected to the change. Democratic Rep. Nate McConnell of Missoula said it could interfere with First Amendment free press rights.

Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito would like the question of whether the photos are public information resolved.

Right now, the Yellowstone County Detention Facility releases the photos to the media if it won't interfere with an investigation, said Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder. 

If a law enforcement agency in Yellowstone County believes a suspect's photo could harm an investigation, they can request the mugshot be temporarily withheld from the public, Billings Police Chief Rich St. John said. 

Publishing photos can prevent investigators from conducting lineups, Twito said. Conversely, it can also lead to additional witnesses coming forward with information, he said. 

After Twito's office filed charges of sexual intercourse without consent and privacy in communications against Leslie Dean Ernst in 2013, his mugshot ran in local news outlets. According to an amended charging affidavit in Ernst's case, a second woman came forward and reported Ernst had also assaulted her. Ernst has since pleaded guilty to five counts of privacy in communications and is awaiting sentencing.

If mug shots are made confidential, Linder said he would want it clarified when law enforcement could release a mug shot without a court order. 

Law enforcement will release mug shots if it is either in the interest of a criminal investigation or in the interest of public safety, Linder said.

The Gazette's Ashley Nerbovig contributed to this report.


Justice reporter for The Billings Gazette.