Change in sheriff’s public information policy poses access problems

By Karen Antonacci
The Monitor
Originally published July 20, 2014

When the story of an appeals court judge arrested July 12 after failing a sobriety test broke later that afternoon, local media ran with the only photo they had of her — a coiffed glamour shot that graced her 2012 campaign signs.

Nora Lydia Longoria, who was elected in 2012 to the 13th Court of Appeals, where she serves a 20-county area with four other justices, looks much different in her mug shot —tired with bloodshot eyes.

The picture was included in a news release the McAllen police department issued Monday morning.

The Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office, however, refused to release the mug shot the afternoon of July 12 to a Monitor reporter, even with a written request, citing a May 22 directive.

Previously, reporters seeking mugshots of someone booked into the jail after business hours or on weekends could fax the booking sergeant a written public information request and receive the mugshot via email within the hour.

But under new guidelines for how Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office, employees deal with media requests, two public information officers — Joel Rivera and J.P. Rodriguez — are available to journalists whenever news breaks.

Former Sheriff Lupe Treviño routinely handled media inquiries himself via his cellphone.

The Guerra administration also asked all Rio Grande Valley media outlets with standing agreements with the Sheriff’s Office to receive the daily booking sheet to resubmit their request every day.

One of the largest parts of the new media policy was the requirement that all requests made under the Texas Public Information Act be sent to one email and fax number, and then disseminated to the correct person to release the information.

A consequence of the public information request policy change is that now, journalists seeking mugshots after the administrative assistant who is authorized to release them to the public goes home by 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, they are out of luck.

Guerra said the change in the policy was borne out of a desire to be more transparent than the Treviño administration.

“The reason that was put out was because of accountability,” Guerra said. “Now one person gets it and they distribute it to the person responsible to get the information out, that way everything gets recorded … everyone knows what their job is and are given an assignment and are accountable for it.”

The Texas 14th court of appeals decided in favor of the Houston Chronicle Publishing Co. v. The City of Houston in 1975 and declared that information included on the first page of a police report — mug shot included — is public.

Hidalgo County’s system of authorizing individual mug shots to be released publicly is far more restrictive than many law enforcement agencies — including the Cameron County Sheriff’s Department — that post booking photos of all current jail inmates on its website, free for the public to access at any time. That accessibility has spawned for-profit mug shot websites and publications.

Emily Grannis, a Jack Nelson legal fellow with the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press said most law enforcement entities default to making mugshots immediately available because the photos can be valuable information for the public.

“It’s helpful in making sure that they don’t confuse the person arrested with a person of a similar name, or the same name,” Grannis said. “It also promotes accountability on the police side. A mugshot of someone could show signs of being beaten or show any visible injuries, things like that. Again, it’s not assuming that the police beat everyone they arrest, but the point is the public gets a window into how the process goes.”

Guerra acknowledged that business-hours-only access to mugshots could present a problem to journalists. He said it was the first time it was brought to his attention and he would “work on it,” adding that eventually he wants to put mugshots in a searchable online database like other sheriff’s departments do.

“Once that technology becomes available, it will be very transparent,” Guerra said. “That’s my goal — to be very, very transparent.”