Jails Stop Posting Mug Shots to End "Extortion" by Profiteering Websites
A growing number of jails are no longer putting booking photos of arrestees online in order to prevent websites such as mugshots.com from obtaining and posting them, then charging people to remove them.
At least seven states have passed bills related to the commercial use of mug shots, including Georgia, Texas, Oregon, Illinois, Colorado, Wyoming and Utah; similar legislation has been introduced in over a dozen other states, including California, Florida, New Jersey and Missouri.
In Georgia, mug shots were removed from law enforcement websites as of July 1, 2014. People can still obtain mug shots through public records requests, but must provide a statement that they will not post the photos online and charge a removal fee.
Using mug shots as a business model has been a growing and apparently profitable trend. [See: PLN, Oct. 2012, p.36]. Around 11.6 million people cycle in and out of jails in the U.S. each year, which creates a lucrative market for dozens of mug shot websites.
When South Carolina defense attorney Seth Rose found his client’s booking photos on a site that charged almost $400 to remove them, he decided to take action. “It’s extortion,” he said.
Rose, who serves as a councilman in Richland County, learned that mug shot sites posted every booking photo originally published on the website of the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center, which removes the photos once a defendant posts bond or leaves the facility.
When several of his clients struggled to have their booking photos removed from mugshots.com, Rose spoke with the county attorney and jail officials. Richland County has a database of over 9,000 photos, making it the state’s second-largest provider of mug shots for the website.
That creates a huge source of potential revenue. Mugshots.com has an “unpublish” link on its site, which directs users to an affiliated website, unpublisharrest.com. That site lets people submit a form requesting removal of their mug shot – but only after they pay a fee that starts at $399. The fee applies even if a person is found not guilty, the charges are dismissed or their record is expunged.
After Rose spoke with Richland County officials, the jail decided to discontinue posting mug shots online. It still lists names and charges for arrestees, and provides mug shots to the media upon request.
Rose said the booking photos can permanently damage a person’s reputation, especially college students he has represented. “It can have lifelong ramifications,” he noted, such as hindering the ability to obtain employment.
Mug shot websites use search engine optimization (SEO) to ensure that people’s booking photos appear at the top of the results for popular search engines like Google and Bing when someone searches for their name.
“They are essentially saying, ‘We’ve got your mug shot online. We know it’s going to interfere with your life and we’re going to charge you to take it down, and if you don’t pay us we’re going to continue to embarrass your personal and business reputation,’” said Ohio attorney Scott Ciolek.
In Florida, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office stopped publishing mug shots on its website in January 2014. Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said sites that post booking photos aren’t doing anything illegal, but charging a fee to remove someone’s mug shot is “unconscionable, verging on blackmail and clearly taking advantage of someone’s circumstances.”
Attorneys for mug shot websites have defended their clients’ practices.
“Unpopular speech, unpopular actions are generally protected under the First Amendment, provided they’re not illegal in other ways,” said Marc Epstein, who represents mugshots.com. “It’s uncomfortable, perhaps. But it doesn’t rise anywhere near the level of extortion. We threaten nobody.”
Brian S. Kabateck, a Los Angeles attorney suing one of the websites, disagreed. “They’re putting it out there not for some great public purpose,” he noted. “They’re putting it out there for economic gain. And that’s the only reason they’re doing this.”
In Ohio, a federal lawsuit against two mug shot websites, bustedmugshots.com and mugshotsonline.com, settled in December 2013. The sites agreed to pay $7,500 and not charge people for removing their photos. Both sites are run by Citizens Information Associates LLC, based in Austin, Texas. See: Lashaway v. D’Antonio, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ohio), Case No. 3:13-cv-01733-JZ.
Another suit filed in Florida is challenging the practice of posting public mug shots on private websites and then charging fees to remove them. The suit names the operators of nine mug shots sites, including mugshots.com and whosarrested.com. The plaintiffs moved to certify the case as a class-action, which was denied by the federal district court in May 2014. A renewed motion for class certification remains pending. See: Bilotta v. Citizens Information Associates LLC, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Fla.), Case No. 8:13-cv-02811-CEH-TGW.
Meanwhile, mugshots.com, which describes itself as a “Google for Mugshots,” continues to partner with unpublisharrest.com to remove booking photos from its site – for fees ranging from $399 for one arrest to $1,799 for five arrests.
Sources: The State, www.stltoday.com, www.wjbf.com, www.tampabay.com, www.wired.com, www.theguardian.com, www.foxnews.com, Los Angeles Times, www.wcpo.com
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