Local News
5:00 am
Thu October 18, 2012

Too Much "Cheese" In A Mug Shot Could Get You Lockdown

Mug shots. We love them, don't we? Tell me you haven't gawked with glee at the unflattering police candid of a Hollywood starlet or fallen politician. Newspapers have whole sections of their websites dedicated to mug shots these days.

But mugging too much for a mug shot in Mecklenburg County can get you locked in a cell indefinitely.

I guess the first question is why someone would smile in a mug shot to begin with?

In Scottie Wingfield's case, she was arrested back in January as part of a planned act of civil disobedience during an Occupy Charlotte protest.  Cracking a huge grin in her mug shot was a way of extending that protest.

But the deputy behind the camera pushed back.

He said, 'I'll put you in lockdown for five hours if you continue to smile,'" says Wingfield.

Yep. Lockdown.

So, Wingfield settled for a smirk. Other Occupiers say they had a similar experience. But last week, activist Jason Dow tested the "no-smiling" rule right into a 5 x 8 cinderblock cell.

"It felt so long in that cell - it was so cold," says Dow, who ended up at arrest processing after a judge ordered him jailed pending $250 bond.

Dow faces charges linked to an incident in February when he used a computer to project protest messages on Bank of America's building. 

When it came time for Dow's mug shot, the deputy told him to stop smiling.

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

Twelve hours he sat in that cell.

Sheriff's deputies offered him at least three chances to come out and keep a straight face for the camera, but Dow dug in. He finally caved the next morning when he realized how worried his friends must be waiting outside to post bail. See, that customary phone call only comes after you clear the mug shot part of arrest processing.

When he got out, Dow stopped at a gas station and saw a copy of The Slammer sitting on the counter.

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

"I have the keys to the kingdom," quips Captain Mark McLaughlin, who over sees Mecklenburg County Arrest Processing.

On a tour of the facility, he points out the finger print machines, the photo areas and - twenty feet away - the cinder block cell where Dow was held. I can see through the glass door that it's empty.

Of the 53,000 arrestees processed here each year, McClaughlin estimates less than a hundred end up "locked down" like Dow. He points to half a dozen guys lounging on plastic benches as we pass by.  They sit quietly, watching TV.

"Nobody in holding cells," notes McLaughlin. No need for handcuffs either, he adds. "They're cooperative."

McLaughlin says smiling in a mug shot isn't strictly prohibited as long as you don't "really cheese up - we can't have that."

McLaughlin says police use mug shots from the database when they put together photo line-ups of suspects in a crime. The pictures need to look uniform.

But the rule itself isn't uniformly enforced. The acceptable level of "cheese" is up to the deputy on mug shot duty. Peruse the sheriff's website of arrests and you'll find the gamut of grins and grimaces.

And if lockdown seems a little severe for smiling, McLaughlin says deputies don't have time to mess with uncooperative people. It's easier just to wait them out.

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

So wipe that smile off your face.