January, 2018

The Problem of Online Mugshots

Eighteen states have laws preventing online mugshot businesses from charging a person a fee to remove a mugshot photo published online. However, most states do not have such protections and, when some websites collect mugshots – even of those arrested but never charged with a crime – and then post the photos online, a person must pay the website a fee to have a photo removed. The fee can be quite high; one example cited in a recent article described a man in Illinois who was told by mugshots.com, a large web-presence site with entries of 30,000 people, that it would cost $15,000.00 to have his entry and photo deleted (most fees demanded are not that high, and they vary from $30.00 to $400.00, or more, according to one article). The entry for that man inaccurately showed him still on parole, and he said that he had been fired from jobs because of the inaccurate entry. A lawsuit against the website – awaiting certification as a class-action – is pending. In other, similar lawsuits, the attorneys defending the websites have argued that it is a First Amendment issue.

The protective laws apparently have little effect, as the companies have found ways around the legal restrictions, or ignore them; often, the person complaining has no legal remedy or mechanism to force a website to remove the photos and entries, even when the information is erroneous or outdated. Another man in Illinois, who spent fifteen years in prison before he was exonerated, is still listed on a website as an offender.

An attorney for mugshots.com was quoted as saying that it was not the website that caused the people harm, but it was their own criminal history.  Also, the attorney, David Ferrucci, said, “If your claim is that the publication of public records has hurt your reputation, then you’re complaining about the publishing of public records.”

Sources:  Rebecca Beitsch, “Fight Against Mugshot Sites brings Little Success,” pewtrusts.org, December 11, 2017:
http://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/blogs/stateline/2017/12/11/fight-against-mugshot-sites-brings-little-success
David Segal, “Mugged by a Mug Shot Online,” nytimes.com, October 5, 2013:
http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/06/business/mugged-by-a-mug-shot-online.html

by Neil Leithauser
Associate Editor