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Electronic etchings: The damaging permanence of lists in the digital era

By Rebecca Beitsch . . . Mike Anderson was an 18-year-old freshman at Texas State University when he was busted with less than a gram of weed. Police arrested him, took his mugshot, and he spent the night in jail.

The legal consequences for being caught with such a small amount of marijuana — just enough for a joint or two — were minimal, but expensive. Prosecutors offered to drop the charges if he attended a drug program and did community service, and he could later get the record of his arrest expunged for about $500, wiping the history of his arrest from public view.

“After I got it expunged I thought it was pretty much a done deal,” he said of the order granted earlier this year.

But the next time he Googled his name, he realized the ordeal was far from over. His arrest photo was posted on Mugshots.com. The page was one of the top results for anyone who might be looking for him. And as Anderson applied for internships — a graduation requirement for mechanical engineering majors — recruiters who initially seemed interested would offer the spot to someone else.

“It wasn’t right,” said Anderson, a junior, who asked that his real name not be used for fear of drawing further attention to his mugshot.

“I called [Mugshots.com] on the phone, and they told me basically the only way I could get the mugshot to come down was to pay a certain fine. Proof of expunction wasn’t valid.”

At a time when personal information can end up online and rocket around the globe in seconds, the estimated 78 million Americans with criminal records are a rich target for websites that collect mugshots from police departments and sheriffs’ offices across the country and typically charge hundreds or thousands of dollars to have the photos removed. Even people who are arrested but never charged have their photos on the sites.

Since their business practices came to light in 2013, the websites have drawn the ire of state lawmakers who criticize them as exploitative. Texas is one of 18 states with laws designed to help people like Anderson, cracking down on mugshot websites by banning them from charging removal fees, stemming the flow of mugshots from law enforcement agencies, or requiring that the postings be accurate.

But so far, the laws have been largely ineffective in providing relief to those whose photos are featured on the sites.

“They haven’t worked,” said Eumi Lee, a law professor at University of California-Hastings who has spent three years studying the effectiveness of mugshot laws for an upcoming legal review article to be published by Rutgers. “But they’ve had a bunch of unintended consequences.”

Mugshot websites have ignored the laws or quickly figured out ways to work around them, Lee said. In places where people can no longer pay to have photos deleted, they often have no remedy to get them removed. And once law enforcement releases the photos, they have little control over where they end up.

Mugshots.com, one of the biggest purveyors, has entries for nearly 30 million people, including people in states that hoped to make it easier to have mugshots removed.

Stateline review found evidence across the country of the laws’ inadequacy:

  • Georgia twice tried to get mugshots off websites, first blocking sites from charging arrestees who were never convicted to have their pictures removed, and then requiring affidavits from any entity requesting law enforcement copies of mugshots. Still, Mugshots.com claims to have 2.3 million records from Georgia on its site, including entries for those arrested after the law took effect.
  • California enacted a law in 2014 barring mugshot companies from charging to remove photos. But even its sponsor doesn’t know how well it’s working. Pressed recently by Stateline for evidence of the law’s effectiveness, the office of state Sen. Jerry Hill, a Democrat, found a still-operating site, Whogotarrested.org, requesting a fee to remove photos. He requested a probe by the state’s attorney general.
  • And in Illinois, where the law similarly bans fees to remove mugshots, Mugshots.com is being sued for charging arrestees.

One of the plaintiffs in the Illinois suit, Peter Gabiola, said he can’t escape a criminal past — despite time served — because his face keeps popping up on Google searches. Gabiola said Mugshots.com told him it would cost $15,000 to have his information removed from the site. He contends he’s repeatedly been fired shortly after starting new jobs, even when he disclosed his criminal past, because Mugshots.com incorrectly insists he is still on parole.

“I made my life hard enough making some of the decisions I made in the past as a knucklehead, so I don’t need some worldwide company or whatever making it harder by publishing incorrect information,” Gabiola said.

Sheryl Ring, Gabiola’s attorney, said that’s part of the company’s business model — people who are already struggling because of a criminal record will be more likely to pay if the listing makes things look worse than they really are.

Despite the laws’ dubious track records, states keep enacting them. This year Florida, New Jersey, Ohio and South Dakota all enacted laws targeting mugshot websites.

To be sure, trying to rein in mugshot websites is a challenge. In most states, mugshots are a public record. The companies can digitally scrape the photos from law enforcement websites, uploading them to their own sites in just hours, or put in public information requests to get others. When they’ve been sued, the sites’ attorneys have repeatedly argued their work is protected under the First Amendment.

Please read the rest of this article at Stateline.

This topic contains 18 replies, has 3 voices, and was last updated by  Jonny everyman 3 weeks ago.

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  • #30160 Reply

    Tim Lawyer

    Some uses of electronic databases are unconstitutional. Mug shots are derived from accusation not conviction of citizens. Photos are forced upon the arrested citizen by the administrative branch.

    The photographs were more expensive to produce in the recent past thereby limiting government interest.
    Electronic photography has made it very inexpensive to create data(photo) and maintain a database.
    Now firms like Mugshot.com use government created files to make profit. Mugshots.com does so without paying the people to do so. Clearly their emphasis is not on public safety. Firms who exploit the data garnered from “publicly” owned databases are criminal free riders.

    We can thank our leadership for their existence.

    P.S. if IML doesn’t merit a DC Gathering en masse it is over for liberty in America.

    “If no liberty at stake; who would complain?.” J.P. Stevens

  • #30187 Reply

    Jerry P.

    A few years ago an acquaintance told me he and some of his friends saw me on one of the local convenient mart “mugshot” papers. I had been out of prison 7-years and never on probation. (of course I was on the registry). I had always told myself if I ever became financially stable I would avoid any place that sold papers like that. I’m still looking for a job… More broke than I’ve ever been…

    • #30214 Reply

      Jonathan Merritt

      Are you ready to change your life and no longer be broke??
      Are you interested in becoming a truck driver?

      • #30327 Reply

        Tim L

        Jonathan,

        I have inquired about employment in the trucking industry. Many companies refuse to hire registrants. They take the position for two reasons
        1. Regulation upon registrants involved in interstate commerce.
        2. Liability from potential assaults- firm reputation.

        If you are currently trucking for a living can you describe in which capacity you do so.

        Which firm you work for, routs etc.
        Thanks Tim L

  • #30192 Reply

    Kendal

    Maybe they should be sued under intentional infliction of emotional distress. A lot easier to prove and quite damaging financially to the damaging party.

  • #30197 Reply

    Maestro

    All “freedom of the press” aside, I think it is asinine for newspapers and TV news to report on “accusations” because our “great and wonderful” country of people just LOVE to mentally convict people BEFORE their day in court.

    If there’s a news report that someone committed a crime, many people will see that and assume guilt.
    If no guilt can be proven and the person is set free, there’s no guarantee that the public saw, heard or read the outcome. They just remember the original accusation.

    Why is an arrest a ‘public record’? Arrests do not prove guilt. What is wrong with mankind that we just love dramatic bullshit? We thrive on it. Why?
    Doesn’t anyone have anything better to do? Maybe pay a bill or take their family out to dinner? Geez!

  • #30205 Reply

    Brian

    I like this bs not, I can see employers using mugshot.com and renters.
    FCRA DISCLAIMER: MUGSHOTS.COM DOES NOT PROVIDE CONSUMER REPORTS AND IS NOT A CONSUMER REPORTING AGENCY. OUR DATABASE CANNOT BE USED TO MAKE DECISIONS ABOUT CONSUMER CREDIT, EMPLOYERS, INSURANCE, TENANT SCREENING, OR ANY OTHER PURPOSES THAT WOULD REQUIRE FCRA COMPLIANCE.

  • #30204 Reply

    SW

    I was told something interesting by someone that would know these things. Back in the earliest days of the USA, our founders wanted a way for family members to be able to find out what happened to those who were arrested. The arrest was made public to PROTECT those who were arrested or jailed. Now, the very thing that was meant to protect us is being used against us.
    Mugshots and others like it put pictures of people who were charged but never even convicted on their site. This is a travesty.

    I think the information should only be made available to those who file a freedom of information request and/or are family members or a directly interested party, like a lawyer or friend of those charged or held in jail.

  • #30209 Reply

    obvious answers

    Many employers use those dime store mug shot magazines as well. You may be shocked to know how many people are terminated or refused employment simply because their picture is found in one of those crappy magazines. This is more of the “non-punitive” and “like a drivers license” issues of the imbeciles in the supreme court..
    It completely baffles me how the supreme court only needs to know one language and one would think be reasonably proficient in American law and at least American Law English.. Yet it completely fails on all accounts.How have these drooling imbeciles managed to hold sway over a country as large as America for so long???. How is it country’s and governments that do not even have English as a national language can comprehend what the word punitive means and its affect but we have a band of geriatric, doddering, clowns that cant even comprehend English telling us the law?? I love the law and I love the American Constitution but it really failed with the supreme court..of course I dont think our founding fathers expected the need to plan for so much corruption and incompetence.. During their day what we call governance would have been dancing with ropes..

  • #30217 Reply

    D

    Why cant you copyright your image?

  • #30223 Reply

    Raj

    Besides the predatory mugshot websites, websites like Homefacts.com is also playing on the similar tune.

  • #30239 Reply

    Saddles

    Maestro don’t you know a lot of this digital scarlet letter crap is about Satanism and believe it or not he still roams the earth to devour who he can. Do police actually dedicate there profession to God? Do they not break the Ten commandments by Coveting thy neighbor, lies, and other devious plots?

    At one time didn’t they do all these digital set-ups with citizens and than go and than go around rounding them up by this digital sexual excitement, showing fake pictures and stuff of some gal that may or may not look like a teen. As far as a digital poster or something like that, to the eyes of others we are all guilty of something even law enforcement.

    Now we are all for justice but some people want to sue, protest, or have another Kent state riot on one’s hands. Sure we all live in the digital age but we don’t have to bow down to it do we, as far as a photograph that’s just like a def. leopard song or a Beatles song they can be both different.

  • #30241 Reply

    Maestro

    Saddles,

    With all due respect:
    “Maestro don’t you know a lot of this digital scarlet letter crap is about Satanism and believe it or not he still roams the earth to devour who he can.”

    No, I do NOT believe it. It’s nonsense and fictitious. Just listen to yourself.
    But hey, if believing in this fantasy satisfies you somehow – go for it!

    “Do police actually dedicate there profession to God?”

    Which “god” are you talking about? The egomaniac, jealous ridden, blood-thirsty tyrant of the Old Testament or the reformed god of the New Testament after he went through anger management classes? If you pick the Older god, then yes, they are serving him to the “T”.

    “God’s word is eternal and everlasting and never changing”… yeah, if you don’t pay CLOSE attention to the bible you claim to read and you’re not good at noticing continuity errors, I suppose you could possibly fall in to believing such nonsense.

    Matthew 1:23
    “Behold! The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call Him Immanuel”….
    I’m still waiting for the story of Immanuel but the writers are all dead now so I guess I’m screwed. 🙁

    • #30245 Reply

      SandyAdmin

      Gentlemen, I am going to ask both of you to back off of the heavy religious discussion. Saddles, I respect your faith and your beliefs, and Maestro, I appreciate that you have softened your responses to make clear that you are expressing your opinions rather than facts, but this is not a religious forum. I imagine you could find one where expressions of strong religious faith as well as expressions of agnosticism or atheism would be welcomed, but this isn’t it. Maestro is correct in that discussions on this forum should deal with the temporal plane, not the spiritual. The focus needs to remain on what is happening in the physical world and how it can best be addressed in the physical world. Whether or not that struggle is aided by divinity is a personal belief and should remain private. Other than an occasional, “I’ll pray for you,” if you are so moved by someone’s story and feel it is appropriate for that person, let us please cease and desist the religious discussions. Thank you; I really appreciate it.

  • #30246 Reply

    Saddles

    Maestro believe it or not Sandy is right after all Sandy and Robin are host to this NARSOL site and we did disrespect with this. Sure we should all keep on topic and discuss these theme’s to rationalize and help each other out all in this dilemma that we all face, and yes I feel bad about a lot of all this mishap.
    To all the others on here I ask you guys to forgive me so lets all make this a nice Christmas eve and a nice holiday and I’m sure Brenda Jones would want me to apologize for my upset in all this. You know Maestro sometimes I have to take a chill pill once in a while.

    • #30374 Reply

      Jonny everyman

      Saddles I respect your humility respecting the mods wishes.

      I appreciate your thoughts on faith and realized my charges had to do with sin in my life. I know some won’t call it that but I don’t just fear a conviction I fear God’s judgement. May be different for the next man.

  • #30322 Reply

    Sue Wearethepeople

    The Laws need to change, and we need to change them. We the people need to come together and make our voices heard. What I am dealing with right now Christmas Day is just so unfair. I know that this would not be what Megan would have wanted. I think she liked Christmas, same with Adam. My family is having a get together. My husband and I are not going. I made a pie and will be taking gifts for my other 5 grandchildren to my sons home. I am not on this list, but I am going by the same rules. I will continue to tell people this is not right! Just like what I read, and someone is making a profit from another’s demise. How is this right? What can we do to scream out that this is wrong? Megan got her voice heard, but the Government went to far. I am sorry that the U.S.A. has come down to this, and we say it is ok!

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