Mug Shot Time? Wipe That Smile Off Your Face | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio
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Mug Shot Time? Wipe That Smile Off Your Face

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In one North Carolina county, mugging too much for a mug shot can get you locked in a cell indefinitely.

First off, though, why would you smile for a mug shot? Thumb through those publications like The Slammer magazine filled with nothing but mug shots and you can find entire sections of people grinning it up.

In Scottie Wingfield's case, she meant to get arrested at an Occupy Charlotte protest — a planned civil disobedience. Cracking a huge grin in her mug shot was a way of extending that protest. But, Wingfield says, the deputy behind the camera said he would put her in lockdown for five hours if she continued to smile.

Yep. Lockdown. Wingfield settled for a smirk. In recent months other Charlotte Occupiers say they got a similar threat, too, but none tested the "no smiling" rule like Jason Dow. A week and a half ago he landed at Mecklenburg County's jail processing center for using a computer to project protest messages on Bank of America's corporate headquarters building.

And he pulled a huge face-stretcher for the deputy on mug shot duty.

"He told me to stop smiling and I told him I couldn't. And he's like 'Well, you're gonna spend some time in isolation if you don't.' And I went ahead and started walking over there. At which point they shut the door," Dow says.

Dow sat in that five-by-eight cell for 12 hours. Not until he agreed to keep a straight face was he even allowed to make a call to friends waiting all night in the parking lot to post his $250 bail. When Dow finally caved and left the jail, he stopped at a gas station. There on the counter sat a copy of The Slammer.

"There's a guy right on the front with a big old grin on his face, all his teeth showing. And I was like, in that instance, I kind of think it's like selective enforcement," Dow says.

A spokesman at the American Jail Association says there are no national standards for mug shots. In Mecklenburg County, it's up to the deputy behind the camera. And Capt. Mark McLaughlin says smiling is not completely prohibited.

"As long as it's not — like some people will really cheese up and these kinds of things and we just can't have that," McLaughlin says.

He says the pictures need to look uniform because police use mug shots from the database when they put together photo lineups of suspects in a crime.

'We Run The Place'

The cinder block cell where Dow was held is about 20 feet away from where the mug shots are taken. Of the 53,000 arrested people processed here each year, McLaughlin estimates fewer than 100 land in lockdown. He points to half a dozen guys lounging on plastic benches as we pass by. The lockdown cell is empty.

"And as you can see, we have people sitting here, quietly watching TV, waiting. Nobody in the holding cells," he says.

"Cooperation breeds cooperation," he quips. Deputies don't have time to negotiate with someone itching for a confrontation — even over something as silly as a grin. Easier — and safer — says McLaughlin, is to wait them out in lockdown.

"The thing is, we're gonna win," McLaughlin says. "We may lose in some civil suit down the road somewhere, but for the moment, we're gonna win, because we run the place," he says.

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