After more than seven years and a move 2,800 miles across the country, Christopher Jones thought he’d left behind reminders of the arrest that capped a bitter break-up. That was, until he searched the Internet last month and came face-to-face with his 2006 police mug shot.
The information below the photo, one of millions posted on commercial website mugshots.com, did not mention that the apartment Jones was arrested for burglarizing was the one he’d recently moved out of, or that Florida prosecutors decided shortly afterward to drop the case. But, otherwise, the digital media artist’s run-in with the law was there for anyone, anywhere, to see. And if he wanted to erase the evidence, says Jones, now a resident of Livermore, Calif., the site’s operator told him it would cost $399.
Jones said he was angered by the terms of the offer, but no more so than scores of other people discovering that past arrests — many for charges eventually dismissed or that resulted in convictions later expunged — make them part of an unwilling, but potentially enormous customer base for a fast-proliferating number of mug shot websites.
With a business model built on the strengths of technology, the weaknesses of human nature and the reach of the First Amendment, the sites are proving that in the Internet age, old assumptions about people’s ability to put the past behind them no longer apply.
The sites, some charging fees exceeding $1,000 to “unpublish” records of multiple arrests, have prompted lawsuits in Ohio and Pennsylvania by people whose mug shots they posted for a global audience. They have also sparked efforts by legislators in Georgia and Utah to pass laws making it easier to remove arrest photos from the sites without charge or otherwise curb the sites.
But site operators and critics agree that efforts to rein them in treads on uncertain legal ground, made more complicated because some sites hide their ownership and location and purport to operate from outside the United States.
Lawsuit filed in Ohio
Scott Ciolek, a Toledo lawyer who last year brought suit against four sites on behalf of two Ohioans dismayed to find their arrest photos online, said the mug shot publishers are taking advantage of people’s embarrassment to unfairly squeeze them for profit.
“The individuals who are victims of these extortions want as little attention on them as possible, if you know what I’m saying,” Ciolek said.
Phillip Kaplan, one of Ciolek’s two clients, said he thought he had moved past the embarrassment of June 2011 when police, responding to complaints of a loud porch-front 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?”