By Rachael Mason
Is it legal for websites to publish your mug shot?
Yes. A mug shot is considered a public record and can be legally published by website owners, as well as by newspapers and magazines. In fact, most states do not place limitations on the use of public records.
Why should you be concerned?
Before the Internet filled our lives with infinite information, people who were arrested might see their mug shots in a local newspaper, but didn’t have to worry about their police records being widely publicized.
“In the past, those arrested usually could count on something called ‘practical obscurity’ to keep their images and records out of sight. Given that just a tiny number of arrests are newsworthy, prompting news organizations or others to seek such photos, arrest data and mug shots would remain part of rarely accessed government files,” writes Gene Policinski, the senior vice president/executive director of the First Amendment Center.
“But now, an uncounted number of the nation’s county jails post mug shots and arrest data online.”
What about those websites that publish nothing but mug shots?
A growing problem is mug shot websites that pack their pages with people’s arrest photos, then charge a fee to have those images removed, reported the Miami Herald.
The business model is simple: websites obtain government records, including mug shots, and put them online, sometimes postings hundreds of mug shots in a day. When people find their photos online, they contact the company, which then asks to be paid before the pictures are taken down.
A big player in this business is Arrests.org, said the Miami Herald. The site collects mug shots from Arizona, Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, New Mexico, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. Mug shots appear on the site, along with personal details, like the subject’s height, weight and home address. The time, date and place of the arrest can also be seen on Arrest.org, as can the charges.
Using provided links, site users can also tag each Arrest.org photo, choosing from a list that includes terms like “beat up,” “celebrity,” “scary,” “tatted up,” “wino,” “hotties” and “transgender.”
How can you have your mug shot removed from a website?
The owner of Arrests.org works with third-party providers when taking people’s photos off the site, according to the Miami Herald. For example, if John Smith wanted his picture taken down, he would have to hire an outside company, which would then contact Arrests.org to make the request.
The outside company pays Arrests.org between $9.95 and $19.90 when the mug shot is taken off the site, reported the Miami Herald. However, the fees that John Smith pays would likely be much higher.
One such company is ImageMax Mugshot Removal, which promises to “get your mug shot removed from Google ASAP.” Their advertised rates are $399 for getting a mug shot off one website, $699 for getting it off three sites and $1299 for removal from six sites. The company reminds its users that “we can not (sic) remove your mug shot from the Sheriff Department’s website, nor do we make claim that we can.”
Philip Cabibi, the subject of a 2011 Wired magazine story called “Mug-Shot Industry Will Dig Up Your Past, Charge You to Bury It Again,” paid $399 to get his mug shot (from a 2007 drunk-driving arrest in Florida) taken off florida.arrests.org. After finding out how closely the mug shot websites and the removal websites work together, however, Cabibi told Wired that “he feels like he’s been played.”
What’s the problem? Aren’t mug shots pictures of criminals?
A mug shot is a picture taken when a suspect is booked at a police station. A mug shot does not indicate guilty or not guilty behavior, but instead serves a photographic record of a person’s arrest. Mug shots can also help victims and investigators identify perpetrators of a crime.
However, thanks to the power of the Web, mug shots from any point in a person’s past can show up when their name is Googled, which means that anyone from relatives and friends to potential employers or dates might see the photos.
Some have speculated that by asking for money to remove embarrassing information, the mug shot websites could be accused of extortion, reported the Miami Herald.
And, not surprisingly, there’s a website— classactionagainstmugshotwebsites.com—which offers more information on mug shot websites, as well as discussions on the issues surrounding them.