Sheriff’s office ‘wanted posters’ for traffic tickets raise ethical concerns over public shaming

A screenshot of the Portage County Sheriff’s office’s Facebook post
A screenshot of the Portage County Sheriff’s office’s Facebook post

Sheriff’s office ‘wanted posters’ for traffic tickets raise ethical concerns over public shaming

Facebook posts are meant to resolve outstanding warrants more quickly and without arrests, the department says

Update Feb. 18, 2021: The sheriff’s office posted a statement on its Facebook page Thursday saying it would “continue to use our social media platform to assist us and keep residents informed.”

The Portage County Sheriff’s Office on Tuesday posted personal details of several people who have active warrants for relatively minor traffic violations on its Facebook page, opening them up to the kind of public shaming typically reserved for dangerous fugitives.

As part of what the sheriff’s office called “Traffic Tuesday,” it posted names, photos and case numbers of 13 people who failed to appear in court for traffic-related citations ranging from seatbelt violations and speeding tickets to OVIs. Most of them have not yet been convicted of the charges.

Last Friday, it posted names and information of people with warrants for felonies as part of “Felony Friday.” The traffic post has been shared over 120 times, more than the post related to felony warrants. It also garnered, in little more than 24 hours, more than 10 times the comments the felony post had.

By sharing the personal information to over 8,000 Facebook followers, Chief Deputy Ralph Spidalieri said the department is attempting to resolve more than 4,000 active warrants. He said they currently assign a deputy to call and visit people’s homes six days a week to enforce warrants, and using social media could make the process more efficient. It also spares people the inconvenience of an arrest, he said.

“If somebody feels embarrassed, I can’t help that,” he said. “We’re not here to embarrass anyone. We’re here to do a job.”

These Facebook posts can help remind people who may have forgotten to pay their ticket, offering them a chance to come into the sheriff’s office and pay without being arrested, he said.

“We don’t want to have you arrested,” Spidalieri said. “We don’t want to stop you on the road and then have to tow your car. … This makes it a whole lot easier. It comes down to responsibility. If you get a ticket, take care of your ticket, and that doesn’t happen.”

Many people have been dismayed by this, however. Dozens commented on the Facebook post, voicing concerns that it portrayed those with pending minor misdemeanors as dangerous criminals. A few requested it be taken down.

Akron-based criminal defense attorney Jon Sinn said posting people’s details on social media could inflict lasting damage to their reputations and amount to an invasion of privacy. In his opinion, the sheriff’s office may have some civil liability for the Facebook posts.

“The danger of putting them out on a wanted poster as ‘do not approach, contact the sheriff,’ far outweighs any benefit that law enforcement could see from collecting or from pursuing these minor offenders,” Sinn said. “I think the benefit is that they get these tickets off the books or they generate some traffic revenue, but the danger is that somebody could get hurt. I envision a situation where a vigilante or a do-gooder of sorts takes matters into their own hands. And the potential for injury or the potential for disaster to happen is really quite foreseeable.”

He said he understands the value in posting information about wanted violent criminals, but publicly presenting these people with minor misdemeanor offenses in the same manner as those with serious criminal offenses can lead people to mistakenly believe they’re dangerous.

“These folks are kind of damned if they do, damned if they don’t,” he said. “What they really want is for this to go away, and they don’t want the publicity. But the only way to hold the sheriff accountable for putting this information out there is to have folks stand up and say, ‘Hey, this isn’t right. It’s not right that you put me on a wanted poster. It’s not right that you humiliate me in front of my co-workers, my family, my friends, all for an unpaid traffic ticket.’”

It’s unclear whether the Facebook post has affected anyone identified in it. The Portager unsuccessfully attempted to contact many of the individuals on Wednesday.

Former Brimfield Police Chief David Oliver said sharing information about suspects on social media can harm not only the individuals but also their families. During his controversial tenure in the township, he gained a national following in part by posting quips and stories about people suspected of crimes.

But his department only posted personal information of those with active warrants if he deemed them a danger to others and needed to immediately get them off the street. Despite his social media savvy reputation, he said he only turned to the platform as a last resort when his department had exhausted all other means of serving a warrant.

“My biggest concern was that everybody’s face we put on that page likely has a child,” Oliver said. “From my perspective, under no circumstances would I want a 10-year-old scrolling through social media and seeing a picture of their mother or father, and seeing that they’re wanted for driving 15 [mph] over.”

But Spidalieri said the alternative — the child watching their parents being arrested for the warrant — would be worse.

Police departments posting people’s personal information to social media is not new. Law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and even in other countries have increasingly employed the tactic. In some cases, police departments have gamified publicly shaming those suspected and convicted of crimes, lobbing childish and demeaning jokes at people through social media.

The Facebook post has so far received more than 60 comments, but some were deleted. Some commenters voiced support, with one praising the sheriff for his tough stance. However, a majority condemned the post and questioned the ethics of it. One asked if it was a joke.

“I got people at my church praying for you guys not to get hurt and everything, and this is how you are spending your time and resources,” one commenter wrote.

“I respect good police but this is a bunch of bull crap,” wrote another. “This is why people don’t like police.”

Asked if he has any ethical considerations about posting these peoples’ personal details, Spidalieri said, “They have warrants for their arrest. It’s all public record.”

“You’re always going to have people that complain, but if they really are able to understand, then they’d say, ‘Hey, we’re doing our job,’” he said. “And they should be grateful for the fact that we have a sheriff and a department that is proactive to try to get to the bottom of this before it becomes a problem and you have to deal with this on the road.”

This article was produced through a reporting partnership with the Collaborative News Lab @ Kent State University.

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