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Stars accused of breaking law in Los Angeles are fortunate

If you are a celebrity seeking for trouble, here is some advice: Stay within city limits or risk having your mug shot broadcast around the world.

Unlike Malibu, Santa Monica or Glendale, where law enforcement agencies release booking photos, the city of Los Angeles refuses to fork them over unless investigators decide a picture will help with a criminal investigation or they feel the public is in danger.

The latest celebrity to escape mug shot fallout was Britney Spears, who reported to a Los Angeles police station in suburban Van Nuys on Monday and was booked on charges of hit-and-run and driving without a valid license.

Stars accused of breaking the law in Los Angeles and some surrounding cities - including celebrity-rich Burbank and Beverly Hills - can consider themselves fortunate. Just ask Mel Gibson, Nick Nolte or Lindsay Lohan, who were caught in less-friendly precincts.

"There are certain photos that will follow them forever," said veteran Hollywood publicist Stan Rosenfield. "The mug shot alone doesn't get you the notoriety. It's the bad mug shot that stays with you."

Booking mugs have long been a standard for law enforcement agencies, and they become part of a person's criminal record. The Pinkerton National Detective Agency said it created the mug shot concept back in the 1850s when the pictures were attached to wanted posters.

As recently as a decade ago, suspects would be snapped holding a tablet with the date of their arrest and an assigned booking number. Many law enforcement agencies have scrapped that format thanks to digital cameras that can be linked to computer databases.

There is no question that celebrity mug shots are some of the most identifiable and most-used photos today because of an insatiable appetite for entertainment news.

There are the embarrassing - Hugh Grant getting arrested for lewd conduct with a prostitute in 1995.

There are the somewhat glamorous - a well-groomed, slightly smiling Paris Hilton after she went to jail earlier this year for violating her probation in an alcohol-related reckless driving case.

And then there is the downright bizarre - a disheveled Nolte in a Hawaiian shirt, hair askew, after he was stopped for driving erratically on Pacific Coast Highway in 2002.

The most infamous booking mug might be O.J. Simpson's 1994 photo after he was arrested for investigation of murdering his former wife and her friend. He was later acquitted.

Grant's photo was the last known celebrity mug shot released by Los Angeles police, Lt. Roger Mora said. One of Hilton's booking shots taken by the LAPD was accidentally released by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

Mora said the LAPD would not rule out the release of a mug shot, but it would be at the department's discretion based on a "particular crime."

"Generally speaking, we don't release mug shots," Mora said. "We treat everyone equally."

Sheriff's officials release mug shots on a "case-by-case basis," spokesman Steve Whitmore said. He cited a 2003 opinion by then-California Attorney General Bill Lockyer that said mug shots are part of the investigative record that can be made available to the public.

"If there is a request for a booking photo, we check to make sure it wouldn't hurt an investigation," Whitmore said. "If it doesn't, we get approval and then release it.

"We don't treat celebrity photos any different. We look at inmates with an equality, regardless of their standing."

But do booking photos - both of celebrities and garden variety criminals - serve a higher purpose?

Rosenfield believes the release of the pictures "sensationalizes an arrest in most cases."

"I think it would be great," he said, "if booking photos weren't released, across the board."

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