April 23, 2012 -- Businesses that publish police mug shots are proliferating online, shaming those with DUI charges or other arrests into spending hundreds of dollars to have their information removed from the sites.
Laura, a teacher in Florida who asked that her last name not be used, was arrested for driving under the influence last year. To her surprise and chagrin, the next day Google's search results for her name showed pages that displayed her mug shot.
After recovering from the shock and depression of her first brush with the law, she said she decided to act to have the information removed from these commercial sites.
"I was feeling proactive and figured I would do whatever it took," she told ABC News, paying $850 to have her mug shot removed from the private websites.
Three websites displayed her mug shot, including Florida.arrests.org, the earliest site to capitalize on the mug shots that are freely available online through county sheriffs' websites as public records.
While Florida.arrests.org makes a profit from online advertising, anything from ads for lawyers to private colleges, a string of me-too sites, in states including Florida, Louisiana, and Georgia, make money by charging those with featured mug shots to remove their information.
Laura paid $50 to Fortmyermugshots.com to have her photo removed, and $399 to two companies each for the service to have her information removed from other mug shot sites, one of which was RemoveSlander.com. Laura said some of the websites offered a "combo deal" to remove photos from more than one site, but she only used services that guaranteed removal from a specific site. She said the second service she used, Deletemugshots.com did not remove her mug shot for 15 days until she emailed the site "repeatedly and finally had to call and basically threaten them."
"They made good on their offer though and got it down," she said.
While it may be legal, Laura said publishing mug shots for a profit and entertainment did not seem "right."
"[The services] were worth it for me, but that does not make it fair," she said.
Wayne Logan, Florida State University College of Law's Gary and Sallyn Pajcic Professor of Law, said there is nothing new about distributing arrest records, which was done through posters from at least the mid-19th century in "rogue's galleries" or the FBI's Most Wanted posters.
"On the Internet there is a much broader geographic scope and a greater durability than in previous times when we had paper versions," he said. "Technological advances have changed the situation radically."
Logan, author of the book, Knowledge as Power: Criminal Registration and Community Notification Laws in America, published in 2009 with Stanford University Press, said the phenomenon of mug shot websites is similar to that of Megan's Law, a 1994 federal law solely focused on sex offenders, requiring that their information and whereabouts be provided to communities. Various states have created their own Megan's Law sites with the hope of empowering communities with information, Logan said.
However, Megan's Law applies to convicted criminals, whereas the mug shot sites publicize information about those who have been arrested.
"There is a tension between stigmatizing and the humiliation aspect to these laws and what others might conceive to [have a] public benefit," he said.
Logan said the intentions of making these records publicly available are to deter people to engage in criminal activity and educating communities that these people were arrested.
Another website, BustedMugShots.com, has a review system to remove photos one-time fee of $68. The fee is waived by those who demonstrate that they have been exonerated or found not guilty of the charges. The site does not allow the removal of serious violent or sex crime arrests that have not resulted in exonerations or acquittals.
Kenneth B. Nunn, law professor at the University of Florida's Fredric G. Levin College of Law, said the mug shot sites look like "a seedy business," but, at least in Florida, the arrest photos are freely available under open records laws.
"There's nothing wrong with posting these further," he said.
But there may be a problem with accepting money to take these down, he said.
"First, it's close to extortion, although not quite because there is not a threat to harm reputation, but to improve it," he said. "Second, it's fraudulent in the sense that there is little value in paying to have the mugshots removed from the commercial site when they can be googled on a sheriff's department website. Some jurisdictions think shaming is good crime justice policy, so little opposition there."
Tyronne Jacques, owner of RemoveSlander.com and author of How to Fight Google and Win, published in 2010 with Raegan Publishing, said sheriff's departments could put a stop to these businesses if they banned people from republishing the information for a profit.
"I make money removing information from these sites by any means I can," he said. "I am entitled to make a dollar in the free enterprise system."
Jacques said an article from Wired Magazine about commercial mug shot sites published in August is "single-handedly responsible for making this worse."
"Wired inspired a lot of teenagers to own mug shot websites. Any teenager can come up with script to crawl sheriffs' websites," he said.
According to Jacques, some of these sites use profiling to target those who may be most willing to pay up to remove their mug shots online.
"There's a perception that white, blonde women will pay to remove their pictures," he said, "Especially with a DUI, they make it on the sites all the time."
Jacques said repeat criminal offenders or those on probation do not appear to be as targeted.
Kip Judice, captain at the Lafayette Parish Sheriff's Office in Louisiana, said arrests and mug shots are public information for the public good, though he would not support "personally or professionally" sites that use profiling to target those who have been arrested.
His sheriff's office has posted mug shots online since 2006.
"I think it arms people with more information, which is always a good thing. If that information is taken in a good common sense manner to know your neighbor has done something you may be able to do something to better protect yourself," he said. "Certainly we would like to provide you with information to strengthen you with your own security needs to make you less likely to become a victim."