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Two bills would handcuff 'extortionist' mug shot websites

  • Blog Post by: Abby Simons
  • February 26, 2014 - 10:51 AM

A pair of bills introduced Wednesday could be the first step toward regulating the burgeoning online industry of for-profit mugshot collection, which Minnesota lawmakers say amounts to little more than extortion.

State Reps. Kim Norton, DFL-Rochester and Pam Myhra, R-Burnsville, have each proposed the legislation that would require entities that gather mug shots from law enforcement agencies to disclose how they intend to use the booking photos, and explicitly prohibits entities from publishing booking photographs to Web sites or other publications that require a fee to remove the photograph. It would also require that booking photos be removed from websites if the arrest did not result in a criminal conviction.

The bills come as lawmakers take a closer look at the proliferation of mug shot websites that 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.”

Myhra and Norton, like other lawmakers, have received complaints from constituents whose booking photos have ended up on the websites like mugshots.com. They say they’re willing to work with entities such as the Minnesota Newspaper Association to ensure the laws don’t infringe on the First Amendment.

“We’re not trying to restrict access to the photos, we’re trying to stop inappropriate use of the photos,” Norton told the House Civil Law Committee Wednesday. “The only thing we’re stopping is the extortion of funds to remove the photo.”

University of Minnesota Student Legal Services attorney Karmen McQuitty warned the committee that some sites have since moved from requiring payment to remove mug shots to making money through advertising.

“I feel like we’re chasing something that doesn’t exist in its current form,” she said, suggesting instead a tool for civil litigation that makes it a penalty to profit from using such images.

Rep. Brian Johnson, R-Cambridge, introduced a bill that would limit access to data recorders in vehicles, which record information ranging from speed to direction and location. The bill would mandate that the data from a vehicle may not be downloaded without the owner's consent, unless law enforcement has obtained a search warrant or court order.

Both bills remain under consideratoin.

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