Does a Mug Shot Muddy 'Innocent Until Proven Guilty'?

By: Patrick J. Kiger  | 
Al Capone, one of the most famous criminals in the history of the United States, had his mug shot taken numerous times.
Al Capone, one of the most famous criminals in the history of the United States, had his mug shot taken numerous times. FBI

After Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg indicted former President Donald Trump on 34 counts of falsifying business records to hide potentially damaging information — an alleged $130,000 hush-money payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels — before the 2016 presidential election, plenty of people speculated whether Trump would be required to undergo one of the traditional parts of being arrested. Would he become the first president in U.S. history to have his mug shot taken?

But when Trump returned to Manhattan to surrender and undergo processing before his arraignment, authorities deviated from the process and arraigned him without a mug shot, as NBC New York and other news organizations reported.


Several unnamed officials told The New York Times that Trump already had been extensively photographed and was not considered a flight risk. Additionally, there were serious concerns that the photo, which would have been provided to police and other agencies, would be leaked in violation of state law.

That didn't stop multiple fake Trump mug shots from circulating on the internet — including one apparently created by Trump's own 2024 presidential campaign, which later sent the image in an email to raise contributions. The fake image was printed on t-shirts sold online for $36 apiece.


The Mug Shot as a Law Enforcement Tool

The NYPD declined to take a mug shot of Trump, citing there were enough photographs of him, but the Santa Barbara County Sheriffs Office did take a mug shot of Michael Jackson, arguably one of the most famous men in the world, and distributed it when he was booked for child molestation in 2003. Jackson was later acquitted on all charges. Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

The fuss over Trump's booking photo is evidence of our fascination with mug shots, which over the years have become both a traditional symbol of the long arm of the law and police departments' prowess at catching criminals, and also a sort of perverse badge of honor in a society that romanticizes outlaws.

At the same time, even though the custom dates to the 1800s, mug shots remain an important law enforcement tool, despite DNA and other sophisticated technology.


"Police still use [mug shots] to identify the person that they are arresting, so that they know when they put him in the back of the cell," explains James J. Nolan, a former police lieutenant in Wilmington, Delaware, who is now a professor in the department of sociology and anthropology at West Virginia University. "Sometimes they put together photo arrays, to see if this is the person that you saw commit the crime."

"I think mug shots are still a relevant tool for law enforcement, both internally and externally," explains Jonathan Finn, a professor in the department of communication studies at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, and author of the 2009 book "Capturing the Criminal Image: From Mug Shot to Surveillance Society."

"Unlike other forms of visual representation, such as CCTV footage, the mug shot is created in a controlled environment," Finn says via email. "Video surveillance can be a useful tool as well, but it does not produce the formalized, standardized, high-resolution images of a still camera and a still subject."

As a piece of visual evidence, Finn says, the mug shot is still very useful for police and law enforcement. It also is part of a larger identification record that includes biographical and physiological information. "On its own, the mug shot would be of far less use," Finn explains, "but as part of a larger identification record it remains a useful tool."


The History of the Mug Shot

This photograph, now dubbed "The Inspector's Model," shows a criminal being restrained for a mug shot around 1895.  Public Domain

Police have been taking photos of criminal suspects practically since the invention of the daguerreotype back in the late 1830s, both to keep track of prisoners in custody and for use in identifying suspects in future crimes. In the process, photos of prisoners were used by police to publicize their role as society's protectors.

In 1886, New York Police Department detective Thomas Byrnes published a book "Professional Criminals of America," which included a dramatic shot of a prisoner being held down for the camera by officers. It also contained photos and short bios of offenders such as Joseph Stein, alias "Piggie Real," who's described as a "burglar and house sneak."


A few years later, Alphonse Bertillon, an anthropologist who served as chief of France's Judicial Investigation Services, came up with the idea of standardizing the mug shot. Bertillon created the format in which a shot of a subject's head and upper body is augmented with a second picture taken from the side.

Bertillon combined the photography with detailed measurements of criminals' skulls, feet, trunks and left middle fingers, which was used as a means of identifying individuals before police began to use fingerprinting in around the turn of the century.


Why Mug Shots Caught On

Anthropologist Alphonse Bertillon created "Bertillon cards," like this one in the late 19th-century. They were double-sided cards used by police that had photographs of the front and the side of the suspect, plus their name, other measurements and identifying marks, criminal history and aliases. Public Domain

While Bertillon's measurement system eventually was discarded, standardized mug shots caught on and remain a widely used practice.

"Mug shots of the most recent policing era create a database that assists in criminal investigations, much like they did in the 1800s," former Georgia police officer Lee Wade, says via email. Wade also is interim associate dean and professor of criminal justice in the College of Behavioral and Health Sciences at Middle Tennessee State University.


"Instead of them marching a line of beat officers in front of a 'rogue's gallery,' investigators can use the information collected through processing an arrested suspect, which will still capture an identifiable picture to be used in current or future investigations," Wade says.

Police also can create photo lineup cards from mug shots in a database. A witness could potentially identify a suspect from that lineup and verify a lead or create a new lead for an investigation, Wade says.


The Stigma Behind the Mug Shot

Standard practices during booking haven't changed much since the time of Bertillon, Wade says, but technology makes the process easier. There are more steps to the process now, including photos of tattoos and other identifying information.

And a mug shot or booking photo can be released to the public if it will help with an investigation, Wade explains.


"There are social stigmas associated with booking photos viewed by the public, but a law enforcement agency may weigh the pros versus the cons of releasing photos of this nature," he says. "A good example is locating a fugitive or warning the public about an immediate threat likely from the pictured suspect."

But our fascination with mug shots has a dangerous downside, as Finn points out. They lead some to assume the person depicted in the photo has done something wrong, even though criminal suspects in U.S. courts are innocent until proven guilty.

"A mug shot typically means that a person was brought into police custody in relation to a criminal investigation," Finn notes. "Therefore, the very existence of a mug shot does suggest criminality, but it does not mean that the person photographed has committed a crime. In most cases, their identity as criminal or non-criminal is not yet determined. Nonetheless, if people fail to understand this difference, the mug shot's existence can suggest guilt by association."

In some cases, a mug shot that's posted to the internet by a police department can haunt a person who wasn't actually convicted of anything, as described by The Marshall Project. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, numerous states have passed laws to restrict the publishing of mug shots online, and others have considered legislation.

Nolan says that the public release of mug shots is sometimes justifiable, but has to be handled carefully. "If the same person is a suspect in a robbery and you want [the public] to be on the lookout, there's a police or criminal justice purpose for sharing," he explains.


The 'Celebrity' Mug Shot

Mug shots of American actress and activist Jane Fonda, following her arrest in Cleveland for kicking a local police officer, USA, 3rd November 1970. The charge was later dismissed. (Photo by Kypros/Getty Images)
Actress and activist Jane Fonda has been arrested and had her mug shot taken several times since the 1960s, including this one after she was arrested in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1970 for kicking a police officer. The charges were later dismissed. Kypros via Getty Images

The meaning of a mug shot also can be affected by the fame of the subject, and how people already feel about that person — or how they feel about the police.

Part of the public fascination with mug shots is the chance to get a close-up glimpse of crime suspects or prisoners at a potentially vulnerable, humbling moment. Today on the internet, we're able to gaze at infamous criminals such as Charles Manson, Al Capone and Lee Harvey Oswald, and also at historical figures and celebrities who've been arrested for lesser offenses, from Frank Sinatra and Martin Luther King, Jr. to actress and anti-war activist Jane Fonda and Microsoft cofounder-turned-philanthropist Bill Gates.


"When released publicly, the mug shot can take on different meanings, and what happens after the image is released can carry significant weight," Finn says. "The classic example here is the mug shot of O.J. Simpson that appeared on the covers of Time and Newsweek in 1994." Time darkened Simpson's skin tone for their cover, which provoked accusations that the magazine was playing to stereotypes of Black males as menacing.

"Conversely, there have been several mug shots of politicians, entertainers and other celebrities smiling or otherwise posing in their photos," Finn says. "These smiling mug shots often look more like something from a family album than they do part of a police record. This pushes back against the traditional conventions of the mug shot and might help to disrupt the association with criminality."