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Last year, Theo Karantsalis was sweating on a poorly ventilated bus chugging through Liberty City when his cell phone buzzed. A top attorney from the U.S. Office of the Solicitor General was on the line, pleading for a little more time.
"I'm telling the guys next to me on the bus: 'Quiet down, man, this is kinda important,'" Karantsalis says. "Then I told the lawyer, 'No. No more extensions.'"
The soft-spoken librarian, who teaches research classes at Miami Dade College between freelancing for Miami New Times and the Miami Herald, has become an unlikely central character in a hotly contested federal case that has free-speech advocates ready to clash with top D.C. officials.
In a case that has now made its way onto the U.S. Supreme Court's radar, Karantsalis is challenging a decades-long insistence by the feds that mug shots are not public record. The nine justices are expected to meet in a couple of weeks on the matter.
"I need this information to be able to tell stories," Karantsalis says.
His fight began three years ago in an MDC classroom. He had been stonewalled while trying to obtain a mug shot of Luis Giro, a local fraudster facing federal charges; his students persuaded him to fight for the photos.
"Our students are hungry for real information," he says.
So Karantsalis, who's also an amateur litigator with hundreds of lawsuits under his belt, sued the U.S. Marshals Service. For years, press advocates have lamented the Marshals' bizarre insistence that mug shots aren't public — despite the fact that virtually all state-level police departments release booking photos.
That creates the strange scenario that mug shots are readily available for the neighborhood kid who shoplifted a Snickers bar, but not a million-dollar Ponzi schemer facing time in the federal pen.
Karantsalis's case was shot down at every level, most recently by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. Now he has filed an appeal for the Supremes to consider the issue. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) and other press groups are ready to back him.
"The Marshals' argument that mug shots are protected by privacy rights is absurd," says Mark Caramanica, the freedom of information director at the RCFP.