I used to watch Hawaii Five-O when I was a little kid. It wasn’t my favorite show of its type—that spot was reserved for Emergency! (ah, Randolph Mantooth!)—but I do remember two things well about the Five-O. One, of course, is that catchy theme song. If that’s not the top TV show theme of all time, it’s certainly in the top five. The other thing I remember was Jack Lord’s oft-repeated phrase, Book ’em, Danno.
But what does that mean?
As the name suggests, booking is the process of adding a suspect to the books—that is, formally entering him or her into the criminal justice system. It generally happens after a person has been taken into custody—arrested—but may sometimes occur after a citation, when the person will not remain in custody. Once upon a time, the suspect’s information was recorded in an actual ledger book. Nowadays it’s all electronic.
A number of things happen during booking. The suspect’s name and other personal information are recorded, as are a few details about the criminal charges. Their mug shots are taken—a practice police have been following since roughly the 1840s. The suspect gives up all personal property, which is recorded and stored until his release, and usually gives up his own clothes for lovely jail attire. He’s fingerprinted. Eventually those prints will be entered into a national database. He’s screened for any physical or psychological ailments, and jail staff will conduct a body cavity search to check for contraband. Jail staff will check the system to see if he has any outstanding warrants. And then they’ll ask him a bunch of questions—not necessarily pertinent to the crime—to determine how big a risk he is and where to classify him in the jail. A DNA sample may be taken. In some jurisdictions, bail and a court date will be set. He’ll be given the chance to call a lawyer, family member, or bail bondsman.
If the suspect is low risk, he may be released on his own recognizance at this point. That means he goes free after promising to appear in court. Or he might make bail. But if he’s a big flight risk, he won’t be granted bail—and even if bailing out is an opportunity, he might not have the money for a bail bondsman. In that case he’s going to be locked up. He’ll be given some kind of orientation to the jail rules, either by an officer or via video. Then he’s going to spend some time behind bars.
Booking is not a fast process. Depending on the jurisdiction and whether it’s been a busy night, the whole thing could take four hours or more.
Incidentally, once someone is booked, that arrest record is permanent. Even if the charges are later dropped or he’s found not guilty, the arrest record is there forever. And his fingerprints (and maybe DNA) are in the system, ready to be discovered years later by an author seeking a clever plot point.