Police in a city ranked top in the state for alcohol-related traffic fatalities might soon be trying a new tactic to keep drunken drivers off the road: Electronic shaming on Facebook.
In a contentious move that has raised the hackles of privacy advocates and been met with resistance from a police department fearful of alienating residents, a councilman in Huntington Beach wants police to begin posting the mug shots of everyone who is arrested more than once for driving while under the influence.
“If it takes shaming people to save lives, I am willing to do it,” said Devin Dwyer, the councilman behind the proposal. “I’m hoping it prevents others from getting behind the wheel and getting inebriated.”
Dwyer initially wanted the police department to post on Facebook photographs of everyone arrested for DUI in the bar-laden beach town just south of Los Angeles. He has watered down his proposal — now only repeat offenders would be featured on the virtual wall of shame — in hopes of winning support from the rest of the seven-member council, which is set to vote on the issue Tuesday.
Huntington Beach, a city of about 200,000 famed for its Surf City alias, an off-leash dog beach and a downtown packed with bars, is ranked top out of 56 California cities of similar size for the number of alcohol-related traffic fatalities. In 2009, 195 people were killed or injured.
Drunken driving laws are aggressively enforced, and in 2009, there were 1,687 DUI arrests.
“There is a saying: Come to Huntington Beach on vacation, leave on probation,” said attorney Randall Bertz, who specializes in DUI cases.
Bertz, a former police officer who has been defending such cases for 23 years, said uploading DUI suspects’ photos onto Facebook violates their right to privacy and would likely not be a deterrent to habitual drunken drivers.
“It will have a negative impact on relations with the community, the police department and city officials,” he said. “What’s next, will they have drunk drivers walk around with sandwich boards? Will it be public flogging?”
For its part, the Huntington Beach police department is pushing back against Dwyer’s proposal. Police spokesman Lt. Russell Reinhart said that since launching its Facebook page in November, officers have found it to be a valuable way of getting information to the public and soliciting tips on tough cases.
A couple of DUI suspect mug shots have been posted, but they were from egregious cases where police thought the public could be at immediate risk from the suspect. Reinhart fears Facebook fans could be turned off by the routine public shaming of all repeat DUI offenders.
“We see no value in doing that,” he said. “Law enforcement is not about public shaming.”
Dwyer said he has received wide support from residents for his proposal, including from a woman whose husband and three children were killed in an alcohol-related crash. He decided to push his plan forward after the local newspaper had a change in editorial policy and ceased publishing arrest logs.
Connie Boardman, a Huntington Beach councilwoman who opposes Dwyer’s idea, said posting the photos would have little effect on behavior.
“People who habitually drink and drive are alcoholics and are not going to be shamed by this,” she said. “But their parents and their spouses would be mortified.”
She added that children might be bullied if peers see their parents on a Facebook wall of shame.
“That is going to result in tremendous humiliation for a kid who has no hope of controlling his parent’s behavior,” she said.
Other police departments have already tried putting up a rogue’s gallery of DUI arrestees, though some of these attempts have been short lived.
In Evesham Township, N.J., the 75-officer police force maintains an active Facebook page and initially posted every DUI arrest mug shot. Within four months, the county prosecutor told police to stop the practice because it was unclear whether it was allowed under rules about what information police can release.
“It wasn’t our intention to shame people,” police Chief Mike Barth said. “But it did cause a stir.”
In March, the Honolulu police department abruptly stopped posting DUI mug shots on its website under a pilot project. The site had developed a significant following and spawned a Facebook fan page, but no reason was given why the project was cut short.
Many police agencies have set up Facebook accounts where they routinely disseminate suspect photographs, often for individuals wanted for serious crimes.
The Oconee County sheriff’s office in Georgia maintains a Facebook page that includes a photograph of a suspected child molester.
Chief Deputy Lee Weems said typically, only photos of people who are convicted are posted on Facebook. A tabloid newspaper called “Bad and Busted” prints photos of all arrestees.
In California, nothing can prevent a police department from releasing photographs of people who’ve been arrested, and state law compels police agencies to make certain information available, including the full name and occupation of everyone arrested, along with a physical description.
Clare Pastore, a civil rights and poverty law professor at the University of Southern California, said she was troubled by the idea of publicizing photos of a suspect before they have been convicted.
“There’s a little bit of a presumption of innocence problem,” she said. “It’s not really appropriate to shame someone before they are found guilty.”