Perspectives

The Mug Shot, a French Invention

Earlier this year, many people expected to see Donald Trump in handcuffs. As witnessed during Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s arrest in New York City, certain methods used by the U.S. justice system astonish the French. Yet they seem to have rather short memories. Although the “perp walk” is definitely American, the “mug shot,” another classic in the United States, was actually invented in France during the 19th century.
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© Boris Séméniako

On May 14, 2011, people across the world were shocked to see images of a haggard Dominique Strauss-Kahn leaving a New York City police precinct with his hands cuffed behind his back. Like a petty thief or a dangerous criminal! The managing director of the International Monetary Fund and a major French politician pipped to be the next president had been accused of sexual assault by an employee at the Sofitel in Manhattan. But he had not even been charged.

While France maintains a policy of “innocent until proven guilty,” the American justice system does not guarantee the same treatment in the media. In the United States, the term “perp walk,” short for “perpetrator walk,” consists in publicly parading someone suspected of a crime so that journalists can film them and take photographs. This practice is inconceivable in France. Adopted by the French parliament in 2000, a law strengthening protections surrounding the presumption of innocence and the accused’s rights prevents the media from publishing images of someone in handcuffs.

That being said, the American perp walk has changed over time. Originally, only major criminals were treated this way – often with spectacular and unforeseen developments. For example, it was during his perp walk that Lee Harvey Oswald, the suspected murderer of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, was shot dead by Jack Ruby in Dallas on November 24, 1963. Rudolph Giuliani, United States attorney in the 1980s and mayor of New York City from 1994 to 2001, expanded this practice to include white-collar criminals, specifically Wall Street traders. Today in the Big Apple, the police think nothing of handcuffing arrested suspects and taking them to the station – unless, of course, their offense only requires a simple fine.

It is therefore unsurprising that this method leads to public embarrassment. It is designed to dissuade potential criminals while placing suspects in a position of psychological weakness. From Enron CEO Kenneth Lay in 2004 to singer Michael Jackson in 2003 and politician Rod Blagojevich, governor of Illinois, in 2008, all sorts of public figures have been subjected to this experience. In the leadup to Donald Trump’s appearance before the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse on April 4, one question was on everyone’s lips: Would the former president, summoned by a judge and suspected of paying hush money to a porn star, be exhibited in handcuffs in front of the press?

From Pinkerton to Bertillon

Given his status as a former president, Donald Trump avoided the humiliation of the perp walk. He was even spared the mug shot, the traditional police ID photo. Often, when someone is arrested by the police, they are forced to undergo a number of checks and records, including the renowned front-and-side-view photographs.

© Boris Séméniako

Even though this approach shocks the French, they are somewhat responsible for its existence. Everyone in America is aware of the police ID photo, first designed by detective Allan Pinkerton in 1860. Who hasn’t seen the “Wanted” posters popularized by Western movies? However, it was a Parisian by the name of Alphonse Bertillon (1853-1914) who was behind the rise of the original mug shot. This renowned, late-19th-century criminologist developed an identification system later referred to as “the Bertillon system,” or bertillonage, based on basic biometrics (such as height, foot length, nose bridge length, and head width) and the “front/side” photograph. Quickly adopted across Europe and then in the United States, this method was used until the 1970s, when fingerprint records replaced it definitively.

© Boris Séméniako

Back in the United States, the slightest misdemeanors, such as traffic violations, can see actors’ or singers’ faces splashed all over the TV and the Internet. One of the oldest celebrity mug shots dates back to 1938, when crooner Frank Sinatra was arrested in a shady case of adultery by the Bergen County Sheriff’s Office in New Jersey. Other stars snapped in this way include Billie Holiday in 1947, Marilyn Monroe in 1954, and Jane Fonda and Jim Morrison in 1970. They have been followed by Mel Gibson, Nicole Richie, Lindsay Lohan, Nicki Minaj, and Khloe Kardashian. Even Bill Gates had an awkward moment in the spotlight when he was arrested in 1977 for speeding, as did British actor Hugh Grant after being caught frolicking in his car with a prostitute in 1995. Yet instead of taking offense, some have turned their mug shots to their advantage; celebrities such as Paris Hilton and Justin Bieber have used them to increase their fame.

The Breaking Wheel

While mug shots and perp walks are lapped up by the press, they can be highly traumatizing. For the French – to a certain extent – these methods hark back to a time when justice was far more brutal. In France, physical punishments were standard practice for many years. Before 1981, the death penalty was commonplace in “the land of human rights.” And until the 18th century, anyone caught blaspheming would have their tongue cut out. For the most heinous crimes, the breaking wheel was the preferred punishment. After attaching the convict to a St. Andrew’s cross (in the shape of an X), the executor would break their four limbs and chest with an iron bar before tying them to a wheel. This is akin to the mutilating punishments exacted under Islamist Sharia law, which include lapidation and amputation.

This was part of a whole catalogue of hideous and humiliating ordeals such as the pillory – a pole to which a convict would be attached and displayed to the public – and donkey parades. Often used to punish pimps, this latter chastisement involved making the guilty party travel through the city on a donkey with their head facing the animal’s tail. As for those culpable of adultery, they were forced to run naked through the streets, with onlookers encouraged to whip them as they went by.

Torture is of course forbidden in the United States, but a few states continue to execute certain prisoners. The Land of the Free is the only liberal democracy other than Japan to continue this practice. It is generally advisable to avoid any dealings with the U.S. justice system, which is still based on accusatory procedures. In France, examining magistrates are responsible for the initial inquiry and, if necessary, transfer the case to the relevant jurisdiction. Meanwhile, in the United States, lawyers must provide all elements required for trial. The prosecutor has to prove the accused’s guilt, and the defense has to disqualify the evidence. This makes it extremely important to work with good attorneys – which is likely to be the case for Donald Trump.


Article published in the July-August 2023 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe  to the magazine.