Throughout most of Montana, jail booking photos are public information. That’s why Gazette readers see mugshots of individuals who have been arrested and jailed in Billings.
Yet after U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte finally was fingerprinted and photographed at the Gallatin County jail last week, his mugshot was deemed “confidential” by County Attorney Marty Lambert.
In fact, Lambert interprets the law differently from most in Montana. In his county, getting a jail mugshot requires that a journalist or other interested citizen obtain an order from a District Court judge.
So last Friday, after Gianforte was photographed, Montana media representatives, including the Bozeman Daily Chronicle and Lee Newspapers (which publishes The Billings Gazette) filed requests with Gallatin County District Court. Nick Ehli, managing editor of the Bozeman newspaper, said he was told by the court clerk that it may take several weeks to act on the requests for releasing the mugshot.
This issue is broader than the case in which Montana’s sole U.S. representative pleaded guilty to body slamming and punching a news reporter. If Gianforte’s mugshot is confidential, couldn’t other individuals claim that their jail photos are off limits to the public, too? What if no photos were available to the public to see who has been arrested for assault, robbery, rape or murder?
Keeping booking photos public has occasionally helped law enforcement solve crimes. In Billings, for example, a man who had been charged with crimes against women, eventually was charged with another offense after the victim recognized her attacker in a booking photo in the local media.
At the request of local news media years ago, Lambert sought a state attorney general’s opinion. Then a District Court judge in Park County ruled on that very question, finding that booking photos are public information under Montana law. Citing the judge’s ruling, the attorney general declined to issue an opinion because the matter had been settled by the judiciary. Lambert, however, insists that precedent doesn’t apply in Gallatin County.
So the matter went to the Legislature. The Montana Newspaper Association and the Montana Association of Police Chiefs supported a bill introduced by Frank Garner, R-Kalispell, that would have clarified existing law to ensure all understand that jail mugshots are public information statewide.
The House Judiciary Committee, led by Chairman Alan Doane, R-Bloomfield, turned Garner’s bill around to make jail mugshots secret. On the House floor, 55 representatives killed the altered bill.
Requesting a court order to release each mugshot as journalists are being required to do in Gallatin County makes unnecessary demands on the time of already-overloaded courts. Thousands of booking photos are made every year in Yellowstone County and hundreds are printed in The Gazette or used by local television news.
Denying that mugshots are public information doesn’t prevent the public from seeing suspects when they appear in open court. Why require the public to wait for court appearances that may be days or weeks later?
Gianforte received special treatment for this case that opened on election eve, May 24. Usually, a misdemeanor assault suspect would have been booked into jail, including fingerprinting and having a mugshot taken. But none of that was done on election eve.
Even after pleading guilty, Gianforte argued that Gallatin County couldn’t fingerprint or photograph him. To his credit, Lambert successfully argued that Gianforte should be subject to the same requirements as other misdemeanor offenders. Justice of the Peace Rick West ordered that Gianforte comply.
Gianforte’s photo isn’t confidential because all jail booking photos are public information in Montana. We call on the busy District Court of Gallatin County to release his photo as quickly as possible. We call on lawmakers to clarify and affirm in 2019 that their constituents have a right to see the public photos of people booked at county jails.