Yesterday, a nine-year old boy was arrested for striking and threatening his family members. I found out about this because after he was arrested, his mugshot was published online. The mugshot was then picked up by one of the many mugshot publishing web outfits, which promptly put it on Facebook, where it was viewable by their thousands and thousands of subscribers. It then got picked up by other websites, which also re-published his name and photograph.
The News-Press covered the story, but had the editorial restraint not to publish the boy’s name or photograph. I have also edited the photograph, and will not be publishing the boy’s name.
To be clear, there has been nothing improper. The child was charged with several felonies (though he has not been convicted at this time, and it is rather unlikely that the State Attorney’s office will seek to convict him.) Prosecutors will likely be most concerned with getting him counseling to head off a lifetime of violence. But, due to the charges, it is permissible for the Sheriff’s office to publish the photograph. Thanks to First Amendment rights, once media outlets are in possession of the information, they are allowed to publish it. I commend the News-Press from declining to identify the child, though they lawfully could have done so.
I think what’s at issue here is the fact that juvenile arrests are not confidential under Florida law. The criminal case file will be confidential, including the convictions of delinquency for any child unless they are prosecuted as an adult. Ironically, if alternative sanctions are pursued, or the charges dropped, the disposition of the case is not available to the general public. However, the arrest information, including the mug shot and initial charges, are public information. And in this boy’s case, they are out on the internet, and liable to follow him for the rest of his life, regardless of the outcome of the case. That’s the state of the law in Florida, at this time.
I am a strong defender of the First Amendment, and of the openness of government records. However, if there is anything that should not be public record, and there are quite a few protected areas under the law, criminal allegations against children should almost certainly be included. We won’t let the public know when children are found to be delinquent… but we’ll put their picture on display regardless of whether the charges are even pursued. It’s counter-intuitive to publish one and not the other. The legal discrepancy doesn’t make sense, and this law is a candidate for the Worst Laws in Florida.