The unflattering crime mug shot, taken in the starkest light at someone’s lowest moment, has become big business.
Dozens of websites that comb through law enforcement releases of booking photos or mug shots of those arrested have developed a brutally efficient business model: If you want your photo removed, be prepared to pay up.
Some are polished, touting themselves as virtuous anti-crime crusaders, alerting the public to the danger among them. Others appear sloppily dashed together, exhorting users to tag images under categories like “loser.”
In Minnesota, a company that calls itself Citizens Information Repository runs Minneapolismugshots.org, where removing a mug shot and getting a 24-hour scrub from Google will set an arrestee back $100. Those who can pay only $75 will have their photo floating on the Internet for three days — five days for those paying $50.
There are now dozens of such for-profit mug shot websites, and they work like this: Website operators gather mug shots — which are public records — from law enforcement agencies at little to no cost. The operators then post the photos online and refuse to take them down unless a fee is paid that ranges from $50 to $1,800. They do not update records just because charges are dropped or cleared. Instead, they protect themselves from liability by adding caveats such as “Innocent until proven guilty.”
The practice has become so widespread that it’s drawing the attention of Minnesota legislators, who are looking at ways to rein in the mug shot publishing industry without infringing on freedom of speech or information.
Proprietors of such sites say their business is an important crime-fighting tool protected under the First Amendment.
Dakota County Sheriff David Bellows considers it something else altogether.
“This is nothing more than legalized extortion,” said Bellows, whose department posts booking photos and information online to cut down on calls to his jail staff. To Bellows’ dismay, the photos are regularly swiped for use on such sites. The practice is legal under the Minnesota Data Practices Act.
“I struggle with it, I really do,” Bellows said, “because it’s public information and we have to provide it to anyone who asks for it.”
Mugshots.com spokesman Chase Johnson said the site is no different from a newspaper in profiting from public records and said websites like the ones he works for have been maligned in the press in favor of sympathetic arrestees.
“It all goes back to whether there is a public service being made, and there is,” he said. “Just because there’s profit doesn’t mean it’s not a public service anymore. They’re not mutually exclusive.”
Johnson works for Unpublished Arrests, the company that removes the booking photos from Mugshots.com. He said the website has posted booking photos for about a decade and for most of that time, the practice was to just leave them there. It was not until 2011, because of a public outcry, that the company began taking some mug shots down.
Johnson defends the fees they charge — from $399 for a single mug shot to $1,799 for five mug shots — as the cost of labor and resources to scrub the site and Google. Johnson, who lives in Florida, said he did not know how much money Mugshots.com brings in annually.
‘I Googled my name …’
Karmen McQuitty regularly takes the same call from students at the University of Minnesota, where she works as an attorney for the University Student Legal Service. “I Googled my name, and the first thing that popped up was a mug shot,” they regularly tell her.
McQuitty is urging legislators to look at laws that could stop the sites. She notes that some states are already taking steps to curb the burgeoning industry. In August, Illinois passed a law that makes it consumer fraud to accept payment in exchange for modifying or removing criminal record information. Georgia now requires sites to remove mug shots for free if someone is cleared of a criminal charge. In Utah, anyone requesting a law enforcement mug shot must first sign an affidavit promising not to post it on such websites. An Ohio-based class-action lawsuit is also in the works.
“We need it codified in Minnesota, and we need enforcement,” said McQuitty, who works with students whose careers or studies in graduate programs can be jeopardized by such sites before they begin.
In addition to laws, other steps are being taken to slow the sites’ momentum. Google recently introduced an algorithm change that buries the search from such websites. Credit card companies are cutting ties with the sites, leaving them unable to accept payment.
Those efforts may be having an effect. Bustedmugshots.com, once one of the most popular such sites, no longer accepts payment for mug shot removal. Instead, an online notice says the mug shot will be removed only if the record is sealed or expunged, or if the person dies. The company now sells subscriptions to its databases, saying it “empowers citizens” to “be proactive in the ongoing fight against crime.”
‘How do you sleep at night?’
Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, a former corrections officer and ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said that the concept of such sites is somewhat new to him and that it’s too early to take a stand on whether it should be addressed in new legislation.
“My first reaction is that if you have victimized an innocent citizen in the state of Minnesota and your actions resulted in an arrest and conviction, then you are subject to lose some of your civil rights and an element of your privacy,” Limmer said. However, he added, the business practices of for-profit mug shot sites “seem extreme.”
Rep. John Lesch, D-St. Paul, a prosecutor who heads the House Civil Law Committee, said the “irresponsible use of public data should be addressed.” If companies are going to use the data without regard to the due process rights of the accused, he said, “we need to have a discussion about the purpose of public data.”
So far, Minneapolismug shots.org is standing firm on what it considers its First Amendment rights. It offers a simple “No,” on whether photos will be removed if a case is resolved in the arrestee’s favor.
An FAQ on the company’s website includes this final question: “How do you sleep at night?”
The response: “Just like you. In a bed. Cuddling with freedom of speech, an American flag, and the King James Bible.”