Theo Karantsalis, a 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 weeks to decide whether to hear Karantsalis's argument.
"I need this information to be able to tell stories," Karantsalis says. "This case is just a matter of fairness and transparency."
Karantsalis's 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. "They're frustrated to see the government deny these requests."
So Karantsalis, who's also an amateur litigator with hundreds of lawsuits under his belt, spent weeks researching the topic before suing 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.
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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.
Karantsalis agrees. "When I wrote about Giro, the one question everyone asked me was 'What does he look like?' That mug shot is a key piece of being able to accurately tell a story."