Guilty by association
Archuleta Sheriff's posting of suspects on Facebook stirs up debate

Guilty by association

What public interest does it serve to post the mugshots of people accused of crimes? That's the hot-button issue in Archuleta County due to a new Sheriff's Office policy on Facebook./ Courtesy photo

Jonathan Romeo - 04/27/2023

Public service or public shaming? A new practice at the Archuleta County Sheriff’s Office, in which the mugshots of people arrested – but not convicted – are posted to Facebook, is raising heated questions in the community.

In January, the ACSO started making weekly posts of people arrested on suspicion of a variety of charges, ranging from probation violations to domestic violence. Included in each post is the suspect’s mugshot. Ever since, residents have been deeply divided about the practice.

Those against it say the posts are a form of public shaming, particularly because the mugshots feature people alleged of a crime – not convicted. The legal process, in which charges can be changed or dropped, has not had a chance to play out before the accused’s situation and photo are widely shared on Facebook. And, many people suffer from the associated stigma.

“It’s innocent until proven guilty, not the other way around,” Catherine LaCrosse, an Archuleta County resident, said. “We all want transparency from law enforcement, but this is going too far.”

In an interview with The Durango Telegraph this week, Archuleta County Sheriff Mike Le Roux said the practice started as a result of a demand from residents who wanted to know more about crime in the community. Also, Le Roux said he wanted to show his office is one cog in the wheel of the judicial process – i.e., it does not set bonds or release suspects from custody.

“It was an effort to increase transparency,” Le Roux said. “Until we come up with a better way to do it, this is where we’re at, and we believe it’s the right thing to do.”

But what public service does posting the mugshots of people who are suspected but not convicted of crimes accomplish? And, what ramifications does widely sharing this information have on people trying to access housing, employment and other resources?

Inadvertently or not, the ACSO has raised all these questions.

Court of Public Opinion

Typically, when a law enforcement agency uses social media to post mugshots, it’s for suspects of high-level crimes who pose a risk to public safety. Not so common is posting the alleged crime, as is done on the ACSO’s Facebook page, which include failure to appear in court, protection order violations, low-level theft and contempt of court.

Durango Police Chief Bob Brammer said his agency sometimes posts mugshots on social media, but it’s on a case-by-case basis. “We don’t want to stigmatize people for everyday mishaps or mistakes in their lives,” Brammer said. “But when a situation is a grave community concern, we will put that information out to the public.”

La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith said people charged with crimes are considered innocent until proven guilty, and there’s no telling what will happen during the legal process. He, too, questioned what public interest it serves to post every arrest to social media.

“On social media, people make up their mind immediately without that constitutional process taking place,” Smith said. “I don’t know if the court of public opinion, aired on social media, is the best place for those discussions to be had.”

Christian Champagne, District Attorney for the Sixth Judicial District, which covers Archuleta and La Plata, said the practice could have legal ramifications, too. Prosecutors are tasked with trying to prevent the spread of pretrial information that could influence the jury pool and potentially cause prejudice against the defendant.

Champagne said he understands that law enforcement agencies making posts to Facebook are trying to look responsive to the community and show proof of their value. “But I can see why people who are accused of a crime but not convicted wouldn’t want that information out there on social media,” he said. “It’s a worthy discussion.”

The Public Record

Sheriff Le Roux said that earlier this year, a number of county residents wanted more information on what types of crime were happening in the community. And, Le Roux wanted to set the record straight that it’s not up to his office to set bonds or release suspects from custody.

Le Roux argues that the information included in the Facebook posts is public record and available to anyone. While this is true, by posting to social media and broadcasting arrest information on such a wide platform, critics say, a far bigger audience is exposed to arresting information, with no follow-up on how each case ultimately played out. Many times, charges are lessened, changed and even dropped.

“This was a request by a large majority of constituents, and it’s an attempt to represent the work being done by all the agencies (ACSO, Pagosa Police Department, Colorado State Patrol) within this community,” Le Roux said. “And we’re not the first county to do it.”

Indeed, in November 2022, the San Miguel County Sheriff’s Office started a similar practice after people started to question what law enforcement was doing day to day and criticized the office for not being transparent, Sheriff Bill Masters said.

With so many people reliant on social media for news and information, Masters started posting arrests and mugshots on Facebook. But the practice elicited outrage, and after just one day, the office changed its policies and now only posts photos of people arrested for felonies and active warrants.

“I don’t want to give anyone a Scarlet Letter, but I also want to be as transparent as possible,” Masters said. “We decided to change our policy after a lot of community feedback. We shouldn’t post arrests that are just alleged crimes without any legal background.”

An Unfair Stigma

Though unofficial in nature, it appears the vast majority of comments on the ACSO’s Facebook posts are against the practice. Also, a recent poll in The Pagosa Springs SUN found an estimated 75% of respondents opposed it.

Chrystal Snow, an Archuleta County resident, said her community is small, and when you see someone’s mugshot, it creates a stigma that can’t be undone and has a larger impact on people’s lives.

“The Sheriff’s Office is not thinking about how far-reaching this is,” she said. “It’s hard enough to get resources in this community, so then to have it completely destroyed because you were arrested and publicly shamed is not helpful.”

In its posts, the ACSO does say “all individuals are innocent until proven guilty.” But county resident Charles Gundry said people on social media are quick to judge. And, he said, nowhere on social media is there any follow-up information on resolution to cases.

“If you just look at the Facebook comments, people have already concluded they are obviously guilty,” he said. “This is guilt-shaming at its finest, and I wish it were illegal, but it’s not.”

The State of California in 2021 passed a bill that bans police from sharing on social media the mugshots of individuals charged with non-violent crimes.

Transparency vs. Privacy

Le Roux, newly elected in 2022, says he hears all the criticisms and understands both sides. In fact, Le Roux said the practice is under review, and the ACSO is looking for more effective ways to inform the community about crime in the county. However, he said the practice will remain in place until a better process is developed.

“I’m open to suggestions, but at this point, in the interest of transparency, we want to show what work is being done in the community,” Le Roux said.

Taylor Pendergrass, director of advocacy and strategic alliances with the ACLU of Colorado, said this issue is something the state legislature should look at to create guidance and consistency, so it’s not left up to individual sheriffs to decide.

“There’s certainly a need for more transparency on how law enforcement works,” Pendergrass said. “But there are better ways than putting people’s mugshots up on Facebook, so neighbors and friends see it and make lifetime assumptions based on one incident.”

By posting low-level offenses, people who make even small mistakes are forever shamed and stigmatized, Snow said.

“When you see someone who has been arrested and then see them in town, it’s literally the first thing that pops into your head,” Snow said. “And these people are just accused of a crime, it’s not a conviction. So if there is a mix-up or anything, it’s really detrimental to them – getting a job, housing, you name it.”

Le Roux acknowledges that point but will continue the practice – for now.

“Is it the best way to represent crime in the county? I don’t know at this stage,” Le Roux said. “We’re three months in; it’s not forever, there’ll be changes to come, I’m open to it. But for now, this is the direction we’re heading.”