A mugshot is the term for the photograph taken of a suspect when they are charged with a crime. Part of the booking process, a mugshot is one way that police agencies determine identity. Other ways police attempt to conclusively identify suspects is by taking fingerprints, checking for tattoos and birthmarks, and frequently by swabbing for DNA.
This data is often sent to a larger regional or state-wide database to be compared against mugshots, fingerprints and other information to determine if the individual has been accused of other crimes or is using an alias. Just 18 states participate in a program to share mugshots online and identifying information with the F.B.I. for a national database.
A mugshot has several purposes: to make a time-stamped record of what the suspect looked like at approximately the time of the alleged crime, to assist police in virtual line-ups, and to complete booking records. At times an online mugshot of a suspect at the time of his arrest can provide key evidence by way of distinguishing marks, tattoos, or injuries that would help a prosecutor to determine if those physical characteristics match with the witness’ descriptions of the alleged criminal.
Virtual line-ups allow police to bring a series of mugshots to a crime victim and allow that person to choose from a number of suspects.
The History of Mugshots
Written descriptions of suspects can be vague, so police began using photography as soon as the medium was developed – in some European countries that was before 1850. Before digital time-stamping technology, individuals were often photographed (once head-on, and once in profile) holding up a sign with their name, the charge, the date, and other information on it. Collectors now prize genuine mugshots of certain celebrities and notorious individuals for their cultural value.
Once photography became widespread “Wanted” posters with mugshots and descriptions of alleged crimes were developed and mass produced through the use of another new technology, the printing press. Post offices became the central repository for public notification about criminals, and many mugshots were hung there with information about fugitives from the entire countr, making mugshot search easier.
The Future of Mugshots
Some Constitutional experts complain that mugshots used in trials can predispose a jury to believing a suspect is guilty because mugshots themselves are so closely associated with guilt by our culture.
The next generation of mugshots is likely to be a different biometric measurement. Those accused of crimes can now seek plastic surgery to alter their appearance, making a mugshot search useless, so police (in particular the F.B.I.) have developed highly-sensitive ways to scan other unique aspects of a person’s body, including the retina of the eye, the palm of one’s hand, or facial recognition software that can quickly compare measurements and shapes of a person’s face to millions of others that have been collected.