Defense attorneys, however, said the postings could violate the civil liberties of those accused of driving drunk.Good question about what happens when the DA loses a case - haven't they then just slandered somebody who didn't deserve it? In 2009, for example, 102,309 DWI arrests statewide resulted in just 44,777 convictions. This seems like putting the cart before the horse.
"I absolutely condemn driving while intoxicated ... but these people are presumed innocent," attorney Richard Henderson said. "I just don't think that's right."
Attorney Steve Gordon, president of the Tarrant County Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, said the postings could violate state ethics rules for prosecutors.
"There are some people [members] who are very upset about it," Gordon said. "Is he going to pull the information on the case when he loses?"
For the DA to do this raises a host of questions about pretrial punishments, presumption of innocence, etc., but commercial media do the same thing all the time. The broader and seldom-broached question is whether it need be reported at all? In Britain, by contrast, most information about criminal prosecutions is confidential pre-conviction. As a young man, I considered that an outrageous restriction on the press, but anymore I'm not so sure. As Grits has written previously, "much US crime coverage is quite poor, sensationalistic, frequently misleading, one-sided, and often flat-out counterproductive. In Texas, there are at most half a dozen news reporters who I consider to produce high-quality crime beat coverage, and most of the rest often do more harm than good. That's not a great ratio."
A topic Grits hopes to delve into more deeply in the coming year is the extent to which such pretrial publicity - whether it's the DAs doing it themselves, the Austin Statesman publishing booking photos, a Denton art student putting arrests on Twitter, or Nancy Grace flailing defendants in nationally publicized cases - serves or harms the public interest. Stuff like booking photos, arrest logs, jail logs, etc., are historically public data but nobody but insiders, journalists, and those viewing it in a professional capacity would, as a practical matter, ever access it. Now it can be easily disseminated electronically, but doing so before the conclusion of a criminal case, especially high-profile ones, can be highly prejudicial. Shaming can properly be in and of itself a punishment - indeed, some sentencing theorists actively promote shaming sanctions - but punishment should occur after a conviction rather than merely as the consequence of an accusation that may prove unfounded.
Grits fears the issues surrounding the Tarrant DA's DWI arrest list are merely the point of the spear, and that widespread publication of such data will become a major flashpoint among 21st century privacy concerns. I noticed that over at the Texas Tribune, their largest database app (government employee salaries), drew 125 times as many page views as their most popular news story, at 19.1 million page views compared to 153,000. Their second most popular data app was their Texas inmate database, a service which duplicates one on the TDCJ website, which came in at just over 5 million page views.
With web-traffic flagging, more media are putting unfiltered government data online precisely because of numbers like those - they look at their web traffic and see their prose isn't nearly the draw they hoped it might be, but database apps get much more traffic. Lots of papers these days are putting booking photos online to draw eyeballs, but like the Trib's employee salary database, its draw is mostly a function of voyeurism, not because the practice is a boon to public safety or a driver of improved public policy. Grits considers it ethically questionable for the media to publish booking photos and unproven allegations about non-public figures, and even more problematic when the Tarrant DA engages in public shaming while defendants still retain a presumption of innocence.