Opinion: What If Jeremy Meeks Is Innocent? Why Online Mug Shots Are A Dangerous Practice

Jeremy Meeks won the Internet this weekend—even though he’s in jail. The man whose model-like features inspired hashtags like #felonbae and #feloncrushfriday had his mug shot posted on the Stockton, California Police Department’s Facebook page on Thursday and it quickly went viral.

There was outrage that a criminal was being lauded for his looks. And of course there were endless memes and jokes. The media churned it all up, telling and re-telling the story of his arrest and his extensive criminal history.

Those complaining about the reaction to Jeremy Meeks’ mug shot focused on the insanity of lusting after someone with a rap sheet. TMZ screamed out, “Jeremy ‘Dreamy McMug’ Meeks—A REALLY bad dude.”

But there’s a bigger question lost in the debate on whether or not it’s okay to salivate over a felon’s mug shot.

Why is his mug shot online in the first place?

In the US, those arrested for a crime are innocent until proven guilty. But the fallout from Jeremy Meeks’ mug shot fame has meant that his past arrests and general status as a convicted felon have become an ingrained part of his narrative before he’s even had his day in court.

The Supreme Court has ruled several times that mug shots are a matter of public record. But should that include those not yet convicted of a crime? In today’s world, having your mug shot posted online is a punishment that can follow you forever (some companies charge as much as $900 to have mug shots removed from their sites even if you were found not guilty).

Several states in the country are in the process of passing bills that will allow only mug shots of those convicted of a crime to be posted online. Other states, including Utah, do not allow mug shots released to companies who charge to have them removed.

If you were wrongly accused of a crime and later found not guilty, how would you feel if the mug shot taken when you were arrested was online and remained there indefinitely? What if a potential employer did a search for you, (an exceedingly common practice), and saw a mug shot? Even if you were found not guilty, do you think your image would remain tainted? Now what if that mug shot went viral? Think you’ll ever be able to rehabilitate your image?

Just because Jeremy Meeks has a rap sheet doesn’t mean he’s guilty of the charges he’s facing right now. The fact that he served time in prison doesn’t mean he’s guilty either. His mug shot posted online and his arrest record reprinted in media outlets doesn’t change the fact that at this very moment, he’s considered an innocent man by the American legal system.

According to data gathered by the Center on Wrongful Convictions and The Innocence Project, it’s estimated that 1% of all prisoners—20,000 people—were wrongfully convicted.

Jeremy Meeks was driving a car that allegedly had marijuana and a cache of illegal weapons in the trunk. And yes, his previous criminal record doesn’t help his case. But neither does the fact that a photo taken while he’s still technically innocent has gone viral and helped to cement his guilt in the eyes of many who clicked that “Like” button.

If Jeremy Meeks ends up going to trial, it will be hard to find an impartial jury. All because his mug shot got enough press to make him an Internet celebrity before he could even get bailed out.—Aliya S. King

Aliya S. King’s is the author of two novels and three non-fiction books, including the New York Times Bestseller, “Keep The Faith,” with recording artist Faith Evans. She had written for VIBE since 1998. Find her at aliyasking.com and @aliyasking.