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Newspaper Challenges Montana Statute on Booking Photos

In Montana, a state recognized for its “right to know” laws, newspapers can usually count on access to booking photos of convicted felons; not so for the Livingston Enterprise and The Big Timber Pioneer.

The Livingston Enterprise was repeatedly denied requests for mug shots of arrested persons at the Park and Gallatin County Detention Centers, due to what Enterprise Editor Justin Post calls vague wording in Montana’s Criminal Justice Information Act (CJIA) of 1979.

In the end, it took a judge to get the detention center to cough up the photos. But the larger question of how to interpret Montana’s CJIA remained unaddressed.

Police Lt. Clifford Larson of the Park County Detention Center said his office has always seen booking photos as private to convicted individuals and has never made them available to the media.

To challenge and clarify the statute and force the Park Detention Center to supply the booking photos, Post contacted Park County Attorney Bruce Becker and Montana Freedom of Information Hotline lawyer Mike Meloy.

Becker filed a motion on behalf of Park County, asking the court to clear up the statute’s meaning. The statute states that “fingerprints and photographs” are confidential, but daily jail occupancy and initial arrest records are public information. Several Montana county attorneys are interpreting “photographs” to mean booking photos, Meloy said.

A 10th Judicial District Court judge ruled in favor of the Enterprise’s request for the mugshot of an inmate in late October, on the grounds that the photo couldn’t be used as evidence. Big Timber Pioneer editor Lindsey Kroskob called it a small victory.

“The fact that he said that the photo had no evidentiary value is significant,” she said.

As MJR went to print, the larger issue had yet to be addressed.