On Thursday, Tom DeLay reported to the Harris County sheriff’s office in Houston to post bond and get fingerprinted. DeLay also posed for a mug shot. The photograph shows a face-forward DeLay grinning; it doesn’t show him in profile or holding a placard of identifying numbers. Is this happy-go-lucky photo a real mug shot?
Yes, though advances in technology have made mug shots pretty much indistinguishable from normal photographs. During the last decade or so, most state and federal bond offices have made their entire booking process digital. (For one, most jurisdictions no longer take fingerprints using an ink pad but use biometric scans instead.) Mug shots now typically get taken with a digital camera. The accused’s personal identification number (those digits that used to appear on a placard in front of the arrestee’s torso) and other data like gender, eye color, and birth date, get recorded on the side of the photo. (You can see DeLay and his booking information in this uncropped version of the photo.)
Photographing criminals in profile was once considered essential. But since the advent of digital photography, the profile shot has become less common. (Practices vary from state to state, but Texas now takes only frontal pictures.) A side-angle photo once helped officers to identify criminals who tried to disguise themselves, as it’s more difficult to alter your profile than your face-forward appearance. However, now that computer programs are used to compare photographs instead of the naked eye, profile shots aren’t as useful.
As for DeLay’s smile, that’s most likely pure political strategy. Reporters are speculating that the congressman’s advisors urged him to grin so that Democrats won’t be able use a dour mug shot in future ad campaigns.
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Explainer thanks Sgt. Bruce Carr of the Harris County Bonding Office, Terry Julian of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, and several Slatereaders for asking the question.