On Monday, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton was booked into the Collin County Jail after being indicted on three felony charges related to violations of securities laws. Paxton went through the usual booking process — fingerprints, mugshot, the whole nine yards. Except for one key omission — the mugshot towel.
While every other suspect in Collin County wears a towel draped over their shoulders and around their neck during their mugshot, Paxton got to sport a suit and tie throughout the whole process. Why?
Mike Drago has written an op-ed for the Dallas Morning News on Paxton’s mugshot-sans-towel, and he says it points to some deeper issues in our justice system.
“It really is a trifle in the grand scheme of what Ken Paxton is accused of doing,” Drago says. “It was interesting that he was spared the indignity of the towel treatment… that any of the rest of us would get if we were hauled in for, say, an unpaid traffic ticket.”
Drago suggests that this special treatment confirms a commonly held belief about our criminal justice system. “It’s a tiny reflection of something we all sort of know instinctively to be true, which is that if we’re not careful these little special treatments that people get because of their access to power or money can add up, and you end up with a dual system,” he says. “One [system] for those of us who are lucky enough to have that access to power and money, and another for the rest of us.”
So why did Collin County start having suspects wear towels for their mugshots in the first place? “Since about 1998 they’ve taken these pictures with towels wrapped around the neck in order to sort of level the playing field for photo lineups,” Drago says. The idea is that a suspect’s clothing may unfairly bias a witness when they’re trying to identify a criminal in a lineup of several suspects. “Some defense attorneys complained that people could see what people in lineups were wearing and maybe make judgements and… misidentifications based upon that.”.
In Collin County they book about 50 people a day. “If you do the math… that’s over 300,000 bookings with the towel pictures,” Drago says. He spoke with Collin County officials about the towel policy and says “to their knowledge, Ken Paxton is the first one to get a court-order that said he didn’t need the towel.”
That’s right — the lack of a towel was not a last minute decision by jail staff, but rather a court order from the presiding judge in the case. “George Gallagher over in Tarrant County ordered that due to the high profile nature of this case and the defendant’s right to a fair trial, Ken Paxton should not be photographed with a towel like anyone else would,” Drago says.
The court order did not specify if the towel would have affected public opinion, the opinion of a jury, or both.
And while many journalists and activists are calling attention to Paxton’s apparent VIP treatment in jail, others argue that Paxton is a well-known figure and since he’s frequently seen by the public in a shirt and tie, the towel could have made him look guilty. But Drago doesn’t buy that argument. “I suppose you could make that case,” he says. “The case I’m making is that that may apply to you or me or any number of other public figures who may be hauled into Collin County Jail.”
He’s skeptical the towel has a meaningful effect on public opinion in any high profile case.
“The fact is, to date, no one has gotten that treatment,” Drago says. “We’ve had a number of high profile cases in Collin County and a number of those people would appear on the news and so forth, and would be subject to that same prejudicial treatment if it exists.”