EXCLUSIVE: The NYPD Is Using Sealed Mug Shots in Its Facial Recognition Program

Instead of being purged, old mug shots are being fed into NYC databases

Michael Hayes
OneZero
Published in
4 min readAug 27, 2019

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Photo: belterz/Getty

InIn 1976, the state of New York introduced a law that says if a case “is terminated in a person’s favor or results in a non-criminal violation,” the records of the case shall be “sealed” and any photographs or fingerprints destroyed or returned to the accused. The legislation is meant to protect people from being further hounded by police based on a mere allegation.

Evidence has since emerged that those protections do not extend to mug shots used in facial recognition datasets. According to court records of an arraignment in the Bronx, at least one sealed mug shot has found its way into the New York City Police Department’s facial recognition database.

In November 2018, Claire Mauksch, a lawyer with the public defenders’ organization Bronx Defenders, picked up a felony case that struck her as odd. The previous day, a suspect had been arrested on felony robbery charges for an incident that had taken place two years prior. There was little information in the file to show why her client had been arrested after such a long delay. “In my experience, it’s pretty rare for there to be such a lengthy gap between incident and arrest,” Mauksch said.

“When records are sealed, all the details of the case, including a person’s mug shot, are off-limits for routine law enforcement purposes.”

At the arraignment, prosecutors for the Bronx District Attorney’s Office told the court that a new NYPD detective had been assigned to the case. Though a facial recognition search using surveillance footage had been conducted two years prior and resulted in zero matches, the new detective decided to run the program again. This time, the program matched surveillance footage to a sealed mug shot of the accused, the prosecutor said in court. But court records reviewed by OneZero indicate the mug shot came from a sealed arrest record.

“Images are sealed when the court sends a sealing notice and the NYPD complies with every one of those notices. When a mugshot is sealed it is unavailable in…

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