Phillip Kaplan, one of the two people who brought the Ohio lawsuit, said he thought he had moved past the embarrassment of June 2011 when police, responding to complaints of a loud porchfront party he was attending during the city's Old West End festival, charged him with failure to disperse. Kaplan, who is 35, said he declined an offer by prosecutors to plead guilty to a lesser charge, and eventually the case was dismissed.
In the meantime, though, Kaplan walked into a convenience store to find his mug shot on the cover of the weekly Buckeyes Behind Bars, alongside the headline "Hot Summer for Sex Offenders." The publication says on its website that it charges $59 to those who've been arrested and want to avoid having their photo printed. Soon after, friends told him his mug shot was published on some of the online sites and later he was asked about the arrest during a job interview.
Kaplan said he understands the value to the public of publishing arrest photos, particularly for sexual predators. "That makes sense," he said, but not for lesser charges. "I mean, should there be a jaywalkers' directory?"
Jones, whose April 2006 arrest by sheriff's deputies near Orlando, Fla., turned up online, said he suspects the availability of his mug shot might be affecting his search for employment.
"I've been putting out so many resumes and people's reactions are just funny. They're really excited, they've seen my resume somewhere and then all of a sudden it's like I have an infectious disease," said Jones, who is 34 and now a college student in California.
The lawsuit filed on Kaplan's behalf, though, does not go after the websites for posting the photos. Instead, it accuses the sites of violating Ohio's publicity rights law by wrongfully using people's images for commercial purposes. Ciolek, the lawyer, said he's fielded more than 20 calls a day from people interested in joining the suit since filing it last December.
A separate suit by a Sicklerville, N.J., man, Daryoush Taha, filed in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia in December, charges that officials in Bucks County, Pa., failed to remove a 1998 mug shot taken after police intervened in a parking lot dispute between Taha and his girlfriend. Taha accepted placement into a program called Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition and after completing community service in 2000 his record was automatically expunged. But his photo remained on the jail website and in 2011 was republished by mugshots.com.
"Listen, the whole purpose behind having your records expunged is to give you a second opportunity when you make a mistake," said Alan Denenberg, the lawyer for Taha in the suit against police, other agencies and the website. But Denenberg said that while he had served the suit on a Delaware firm that registered mugshots.com as a limited liability corporation in the state, he has no idea who owns the website or where it operates.
The mugshots.com site says it is owned by Openbare Dienst Internationale LLC -- a name whose first two words are Dutch for "public service" — and lists an address in Nevis that belongs to a different corporate registration agent. People who want to remove their arrest photos are directed to a link for a partner, Unpublish LLC, which lists the address of yet another registration agent, in the south American country of Belize. A phone number for Unpublish, listed on its Internet domain paperwork, rings to a fourth registry agent, also in Belize.
Epstein, who says he handles some public relations functions for the site as well as providing legal counsel, would not provide details of its ownership or location and a message left for the operator with one of the Belize agents was not returned.
"We know we're going to be talked down. We understand it. Nobody likes meter maids, nobody likes traffic tickets and nobody likes mug shots, but we operate legally and in the realm of what we do, totally accurately," Epstein said.
A competitor, mugshotsworld.com, lists an address in Russia, with a number on its registration paperwork that rings to a fax machine.
D'Antonio, who said he started justmugshots.com while working as chief technology officer of a Minneapolis web marketing company and recently relocated to a Nevada city he would not identify, was otherwise forthcoming.
He said he started the site after a friend asked for help manipulating web searches to "push down" a mug shot from his arrest on an alcohol-related charge. D'Antonio said that, in the process of doing so, he looked into the law covering mug shots, discovered they were public information and realized that, with his computer skills, that presented a business opportunity.
But he acknowledges that publishing the photos and charging people to take them down contradicts the sentiment of helping his friend. He said he has tried to act responsibly by removing photos at no cost for those who can show all charges have been dismissed, they were found not guilty, were under 18 at the time or for those who have since died.
"Then it becomes a balancing act and it's a very, very tough line to walk and one that we absolutely take very seriously, but there's very little black and white to it," D'Antonio said. He said he expects the business of aggregating and publishing largely overlooked public records to evolve rapidly, and thinks eventually his company could partner with local governments, doing work now handled by the agencies while offering them a new source of revenue.
Some of the mug shot sites list numerous affiliated sites, often breaking down arrests by state. Bruce, the Georgia legislator, said calls to numbers listed on some sites were answered by what sounded like the same person, prompting concerns that a payment to erase a photo from one site might prompt the same photo to turn up on another.
But Epstein, the Florida lawyer, said the site he represents is "not Whackamole-y. You don't hit the head down in one portion of the arcade game and it pops up somewhere else. That's not our model at all."