Honolulu police posting DUI mug shots on the Web
By Mark Niesse
HONOLULU — Mug shots of drunken driving suspects are landing on the Honolulu Police Department's Web site, creating a virtual wall of shame long before suspects get their day in court.
Supporters say the experiment in public humiliation to be launched Wednesday should be used elsewhere in the nation if it reduces the number of drunks on the road.
Critics counter the photo gallery is a heavy-handed tactic that threatens to violate constitutional rights and stain reputations without court convictions.
"We're not trying to embarrass anybody," said police Maj. Thomas Nitta, head of the traffic division. "This is public record, and we want people to be aware of this."
Defense attorneys doubt the strategy will stop intoxicated drivers from getting behind the wheel.
"There's no empirical data to show it does anything other than embarrass them," said attorney Pat McPherson, who handles hundreds of DUI cases a year. "There may be a good intent here, but it doesn't necessarily make it a good thing and really opens the police up to liability."
Arrest records and photos are considered to be public records and have been published in newspapers and shown on TV for decades. The Honolulu program is different, however, because the police themselves are publicizing the images.
Recently released DUI mug shots in Hawaii include lawmakers and several stars of the ABC drama "Lost," which is filmed in the state.
Only a few other law enforcement agencies across the country post DUI mug shots on their Web sites. Arizona's Maricopa County waits until suspects are convicted before posting their photos. Jails in Denton, Texas, and Gwinnett County, Ga., link pictures to the names of suspects listed online for all crimes.
"I don't think people really think about that when they drink and then drive," said Officer Ryan Grelle, a spokesman for the Denton Police Department. "Their thought process is gone because of the alcohol."
Mothers Against Drunk Driving said it hasn't found any research on whether posting online photos of suspected drunken drivers would reduce offenses. It said an estimated 11,773 people died in drunken driving crashes in the U.S. in 2008.
"Based on the success or lack of success in Honolulu, other law enforcement agencies across the country could do the same thing," said Debbie Weir, chief operating officer of Dallas-based MADD. "Hopefully it will make a difference and we can learn some lessons from it."
Honolulu police arrest more than 80 people a week for investigation of drunken driving, said Nitta, who believes the cost of the online program will be minimal because it will be added to the routine duties of an officer in his unit.
At 10 a.m. each Wednesday, the photos of those arrested in the previous week will be posted for 24 hours under the headline, "Oahu's Drunk Drivers." After six months, the department will evaluate the results of the program.
The American Civil Liberties Union said the effort could violate constitutionally guaranteed due process rights.
"The police frequently arrest people who do not deserve to be arrested, and in today's Internet environment having your picture posted on a Web site is something that can stick with you for the rest of your life," said Jay Stanley, public education director for the ACLU's technology and liberty program.
McPherson said the program could also raise sticky questions if police faced the possibility of posting the photo of an arrested undercover officer or member of a witness protection program.
Barnett Lotstein, special assistant attorney for Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, said posting mug shots after convictions has had an impact.
"If you commit this kind of offense, it's not going to be a secret," he said.