by Peter L. Cassady

Imagine being 18 years old and getting arrested for disorderly conduct; and then, after maturing and successfully graduating from college 4 years later, getting rejected from a job because the employer discovered your mug shot on the internet.  Imagine losing promotion opportunities at age 30 because your indiscretion from years ago was discovered on the internet.  These are sad events but they are happening every day to good citizens who feel helpless and victimized.

Thousands of people in the United States get arrested every year only to have the charge dismissed or, after a conviction, to have that conviction expunged from the record.  Unfortunately, with every arrest comes a mug shot and during the last several years a multitude of for-profit websites have come into being where mug shots are posted and available for inspection by anybody who can find these websites.  The alleged point of these sites is to give the public a quick way to examine the history of a customer, acquaintance, or anyone else.

While that sounds all very good, it is important to understand that these websites are in the business of making money and they make their money by charging a fee in order to remove the images.  As the New York Times recently reported, “It was only a matter of time before the Internet started to monetize humiliation.”

These sites are wholly legal.  Fees for removal of images are paid through credit card companies and PayPal.  Some states, like Oregon and Utah, have passed laws regulating these sites but legislators are finding plenty of resistance from journalists who assert the public records should be just that: public.

Last year a class action lawsuit was filed in Toledo, Ohio alleging that these mug shot websites violate Ohio’s right-of-publicity statute which gives state residents some control over the commercial use of their name and likeness.

Many people feel that these websites violate laws against extortion.  A lawyer who represents some of these websites notes that the United States Supreme Court has ruled time and again that mug shots are public records.  Lance C. Winchester says: “I understand people think there is a dilemma presented by a website where you can pay to have a mug shot removed.  I understand that people don’t like to have their mug shots posted online.  But it can’t be extortion as a matter of law because republishing something that has already been published is not extortion.”

One of the very frustrating facets of making a payment to have your mug shot removed from a website is that you will only be successful in having that image removed from a single website.  More than likely your image is on multiple websites and since there are now more than 80-mug shot sites, getting your image removed is, as a practical matter, virtually impossible.

The Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press favors unfettered access to the images, no matter how obscure the arrestee and no matter the ultimate disposition of the case.

As painful as they are for arrestees, mug shots seem to attract big online crowds.  This crowd who visits mug shot sites causes those sites to be very relevant to the various search engines on the Internet, such as Google.

While there is some evidence that search engines like Google and credit card companies like MasterCard are reexamining their own policies towards these websites, the fact remains these sites are still very popular and humiliating for many people.  If you or someone you know has been victimized by one of these websites, please feel free to contact Beckman Weil Shepardson for a consultation.