State law will change in the coming weeks so that mug shots of those arrested for crimes can be considered public information only for “law enforcement purpose,” but many police agencies around the state say they don’t plan to change their practices.

At issue is what is required by an amendment to state Public Officers Law, pertaining to release of some police records under state Freedom of Information Law.

The law was changed so that disclosure of a mug shot “can” be considered an unwarranted invasion of privacy unless there is a law enforcement purpose for it. The goal was to crack down on websites that publish mug shots then demand a fee from those who want them removed.

State Police stopped releasing the photos last week, before Gov. Andrew Cuomo even signed the bill that makes the change.

But a number of sheriffs around the state have said they don’t view the change as an outright ban and don’t plan to change their policies, after getting legal opinions on the new law.

“I don’t think it changes anything,” said Warren County Sheriff Bud York. “Our lawyers looked at it and they said we could change our policies if we want, but we don’t have to.”

Washington County Sheriff Jeff Murphy and Saratoga County Sheriff Michael Zurlo said their departments also will not change their practices.

Murphy said it was ironic that the change was happening on the eve of Crime Victims Rights Week, as the release of mug shots has helped police agencies locate witnesses and victims in cases for years.

If the governor wanted to crack down on the predatory websites that charge fees to remove mug shots from the Internet, the new law should have addressed that practice, but it didn’t, Murphy said.

“My thought is, why not go after those websites as other states have?” he said.

Zurlo said releasing mug shots to the public has helped his agency during the investigation of countless crimes, resulting in witnesses coming forward who may not realize they had important information until they saw the face of the accused.

“My goal has been transparency since day one and that hasn’t changed,” he said. “We’re not going to change anything.”

York said the bill is another example of Cuomo-led policy changes that protect criminals instead of their victims.

Local sheriffs received a legal opinion from the New York State Sheriff’s Association about the change, which advised them there was nothing in the law that required an adjustment to policies or barred the release of mug shots.

“There is nothing contained in this new provision which designates booking photographs as per se confidential or expressly prohibits their release by governmental agencies,” Sheriff’s Association associate counsel Alex Wilson wrote in a memo that was provided to The Post-Star. “It remains our opinion that local law enforcement will still be able to affirmatively release booking photographs to the public.”

Glens Falls Police Chief Tony Lydon said Monday his staff was reviewing the law change and hadn’t decided whether to change its policies about release of defendant photos. Justin Derway, Fort Edward’s police chief, said he was also looking at how his department will view the change.

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reporter - crimes & courts, public safety and Warren County government

Don Lehman covers crime and Warren County government for The Post-Star. His work can be found on Twitter @PS_CrimeCourts and on poststar.com/app/blogs.

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