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6th Circuit: Federal Booking Photos Are Public

A federal appeals court says US marshals in Detroit were on the wrong side of the law when they tried to deny a newspaper access to booking photos of Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and police officers accused of corruption. 

But the judges in the case also say they were forced to this particular result, and they’re not happy with their decision. 

The Detroit Free Press in 2012 filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the booking photos of Kilpatrick, his father, and 17 police officers facing federal corruption and civil rights charges.

A federal district judge ruled with the newspaper, and the appeals court upheld that decision based on a precedent set in an earlier case, also involving the Free Press. But the 6th Circuit opinion says that while the judges went with the letter of the law, they’re not sure they’re abiding by the spirit of the exceptions in it:

“Booking photographs convey the sort of potentially embarrassing or harmful information protected by the exemption: they capture how an individual appeared at a particularly humiliating moment immediately after being taken into federal custody.”


“Such images convey an “unmistakable badge of criminality” and, therefore, provide more information to the public than a person’s mere appearance.”

Detroit Free Press attorney Herschel Fink said this in an article in the newspaper: 

"This is a battle that the Free Press has been waging against the Department of Justice for 20 years, and this opinion reflects that it's still not over. The issue will now likely go back to the full 6th Circuit bench for yet another review."

The decision only applies in the Sixth Circuit states of Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee

Rick Pluta is the managing editor for the Michigan Public Radio Network.