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Mugshots Inc: 'Legalized extortion' or Constitutional privilege?

Staff Illustration: Brendan Sullivan Criminal Defense Attorney Eric Crawford poses for a portrait in his office at the Kelley Building in downtown Lawrenceville on Thursday. Crawford has assisted several dozen clients with having their book-in photo removed from mugshot websites such as http://www.gwinnettmugs.com/. The computer screen has been altered to prevent the people in the mugshots from being identified.

Staff Illustration: Brendan Sullivan Criminal Defense Attorney Eric Crawford poses for a portrait in his office at the Kelley Building in downtown Lawrenceville on Thursday. Crawford has assisted several dozen clients with having their book-in photo removed from mugshot websites such as http://www.gwinnettmugs.com/. The computer screen has been altered to prevent the people in the mugshots from being identified.

LAWRENCEVILLE -- For nearly two years, Peter Meyer writhed in the Gwinnett County Jail, infuriated by child molestation charges for what investigators called inappropriately touching a 5-year-old girl and family friend, but what Meyer called malarkey. Month after month, he begged for a polygraph test. Depressed, he shed 70 pounds.

Finally, the same polygraph expert who cleared Centennial Park bombing suspect Richard Jewell gave the opinion that Meyer was telling the truth. Two weeks later, Meyer walked out of jail, so thrilled with freedom he felt weightless. His name, he thought, was cleared.

Forty-four years old with no home or job, Meyer started stitching together a livelihood. Exonerated, he was hired back at the Brookwood Grill in Norcross as a server, a means to get his metal arts business back off the ground.

Just as things started humming, Meyer was crestfallen to find his name associated with that unsavory charge on a website that features mugshots for kicks. Surely, he thought, clients will see this. But he refused to pay for its removal.

"This stuff was dropped, this stuff was dismissed, now you're killing me all over again," Meyer said of the site. "I don't think these people realize how they're affecting people. This isn't entertainment here; these are real live people."

Elsewhere in Gwinnett, a 43-year-old Lawrenceville man who asked to be called "Richard" has paid about $800 to three separate websites for mugshot removal, fearing his role as a youth soccer coach is in jeopardy.

The arrests stem from yesteryear citations and misdemeanors, one of which was dropped. But one image cost Richard a $3,500 per month client at his licensed personal care home. That person's family had found his mugshot on a similar website. Soon after Richard paid to have it removed, another cropped up, and then another.

"They come like a mushroom after the rain, those websites," he said. "Today it's one mugshot -- tomorrow it's another."

The instant background check or ego boost that is a Google search is turning up alarming results for the curious: glimpses at younger versions of prospective employees, employers, clients or even themselves -- all incarcerated. An emerging cottage industry that peddles jail mugshots, likened by The Salt Lake Tribune to "a modern-day scarlet letter," is adhering a shadow to people that in many cases they thought was long shed.

Every day, a handful of mugshot websites use automated software to download or "screen scrape" hundreds of photos from detention centers and county jails across Georgia. Some partner the mugshots with community alerts and police press releases. Others are perceived as less altruistic, charging between $200 and $500 per mugshot to wipe the record clean. That much has spawned an industry of companies and law firms promising speedy removal of the damaging photos -- for a price. (Some sites discount or waive removal fees for suspects who have been acquitted, had their cases expunged or who have died.)

Anthony Rickman, a Tampa attorney, specializes in mugshot removal and calls the mugshot publishing industry "legalized extortion."

Danny Porter, Gwinnett County District Attorney, said arbitrarily charging for mugshot removal doesn't fit the legal definition of extortion because the photos are public record.

"It's wrong but not a violation of the criminal laws," said Porter.

The precursor to mugshot websites are the tabloids still sold at gas stations, such as "Caught Up" and "Slammer," which feature a crop of local mugshots and sell for around $1. Rickman said the websites started popping up about four years ago. At last count, he said eight sites are active in Florida.

Rickman said site operators are typically "private Internet geeks" either gathering mugshots and charging fees themselves or as part of small private companies. One prominent network called "Busted!" -- which claims to have "the largest collection of mugshots in (Georgia)" -- was started in Florida by an 18-year-old who devised a business plan after a few buddies were arrested. "He is making a killing," Rickman said. Defense attorney Eric Crawford, who practices in Lawrenceville and Walton County, said coughing up hundreds for mugshot removal is hardly a panacea, as none of the advertised solutions deal with cached Web pages. Expungement statutes are not applicable to private websites, he said.

"It comes back to the old warning, 'Once it's on the Internet, it's there forever,'" Crawford said.

One client came to Rickman frazzled that a site was showing not only his mugshot -- but his address and a link to a Google map of his house. That man's charges had been expunged, Rickman said.

National issue

Worries about damaged reputations aren't relegated to the Southeast.

In Utah, teacher John Garofalo was mortified recently to Google his name and find a 2002 DUI arrest mugshot from Naples, Fla., emerge, a charge later lessened to reckless driving. Since that ill-advised drive home from a night out with friends, Garofalo had served five years in the Marine Corps, graduated college with honors, married and had two children. He became someone else.

Fearing his teenage students might make the same discovery, Garofalo had the URL for his mugshot removed from Google. So far he has balked at paying two reputation repair companies the estimated $400 they want to remove the mugshot.

"We haven't paid to have it done because we feel the two businesses -- those that extort mugshots and those that have the mugshots removed -- are connected," said wife Tiffany Garofalo. "Giving money to one only perpetuates the other."

Others agree. Rickman said the mugshot removal industry has developed into a racket for some attorneys, who pay a percentage of client fees back to the websites who posted the mugshots in the first place.

The bulk of local complaints have been directed at the Gwinnett County Sheriff's Department, which generates mugshots as part of its public docket book. Complaints, while multitudinous, are not tracked, making it impossible to quantify them, said department spokesman Lt. Sean Smith.

Two other bastions for Internet-crime victims, the Better Business Bureau of Atlanta and the Office of Consumer protection, report no public complaints. "Many states feel this is extortion," said BBB spokeswoman Dottie Callina, "but at this point, no laws have been passed."

Searches on various sites can be streamlined into image-specific categories like "grandmas and grandpas," "handicap," "hotties," "beat up," and "WTF," the latter depicting arrestees in all manner of bizarre poses. All sites found in rudimentary Internet searches by the Daily Post contain disclaimers that stress the public nature of the booking photos. Some call the federal Freedom of Information Act a shield.

Interview requests emailed to sites busted.com, georgia.arrests.org, mugshotlist.com and reputation repair service removegeorgiamugshots.com were not returned. A representative from mugshots.com, who declined to give a name and position, said in an email that the site modified its policies to allow qualified arrestees to "unpublish" their mugs, which used to be permanent. Repeated consumer complaints sparked that decision.

"At first we didn't know what to make of (the complaints)," the representative wrote.

In addition to removal fees, sites can earn revenue by running Google AdSense banners and other advertising vehicles that hawk everything from bail bondsmen to CVS MoneyGrams for sending items to inmates. A post at mugshotlist.com that explains why the site now charges $7 weekly membership fees says Google confiscated the site's advertising earnings after deciding "our content does not meet the standards they require."

Google spokeswoman Andrea Faville stopped short of saying the company aims to separate itself from mugshot websites. Google does perform regular checks, she said, to ensure the 2 million websites in its Adsense network are compliant with policies.

"We do have an extensive list of policies ... covering everything from adult to violent content," Faville said. "One of those is what we call sensitive content. The kind of site you are talking about would fall into that category."

Scarce praise

Mugshots.com quotes sinewy law enforcement officials who speak in support of the site's virtues for raising public awareness to criminals, but few others have publicly championed the cause.

Open-records advocate Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, believes sites that harvest and then charge for removal of mugshots tiptoe on legal boundaries -- and could be undermining his cause.

"Posting mugshots and then charging a fee to remove them highlights the fact that not all users of official information have the public interest in mind," Allgood said. "It wouldn't be surprising to see a backlash against these websites sooner or later" in the form of legislation to regulate or prohibit them, he said.

"That would be a pity," added Allgood, "because there are cases where mugshots may be newsworthy and should be available to the press."

The effort to regulate mugshot websites could gain steam in Atlanta, come the next legislative session in January. The workhorse is shaping up to be State Rep. Roger Bruce (D-Atlanta), running unopposed in his bid for the District 64 seat.

Bruce said he's been approached by about 15 "victims," beginning with a 19-year-old woman asked to pay a "ridiculous amount" to remove her visage even though her criminal case had long been disposed of. A line needs to be drawn, Bruce said, between profiteers and traditional publishers of mugshots -- media and law enforcement -- who don't charge for removal.

"The argument from the other side is that it's their First Amendment right to do this, and I can't find anything in the First Amendment that says you have the right to extort other people," Bruce said. "We have to sit down and figure out what laws are already being violated and what laws need to be put in place to prevent it."

At the micro level, Crawford recommends an alternative to hefty payments. He advises people to write a warning letter to mugshot websites, followed by a lawsuit if necessary, citing unauthorized use of the image of another, defamation and public disclosure of a private fact.

"What to do about this issue has been kicked around in defense circles for the past few years," he said.

Comments

ricchard 2 years ago

... congratulation Josh!

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BryanTR 2 years ago

One thing is clear is that those publications have the right to publish. The First Amendment protects the publishing of factual information. Arrest records, regardless of their disposition, are factual. All it means is that a person was arrested. Some may not like the business model and that's understandable but further thinking about it, the alternative, not being able to unpublish at any price, is far worse.

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OedipusTax 2 years ago

Listen to government officials and most say crime is down. Rely upon a county web site (if one exists) to report crime statistics accurately per day and most will disappoint you (though Gwinnett is the best at it I know).

How many arrests are there in Fulton County per day? The Atlanta Chamber of Commerce DOES NOT WANT YOU TO KNOW!

However, you, Mr. Voter, reading this, do you know? Should you know?

Mug sites like GwinnettMugs.com perform a valuable service that most politicians and journalists want swept under a rug of ignorance. Some on the fringes aren't guilty, and this is the first I've heard of charges to purge records. Nevertheless, private services are providing information which government all but censors, and this information is terrifically underreported as it is. Atlanta news is almost criminally negligent on this subject. National news is void of it. Our President doesn't give a tinker's damn either.

I estimate 40,000 arrests in Gwinnett annually, 50,000 in Dekalb. Fulton will be more than Dekalb, Cobb will be like Gwinnett. That gets us to 180,000 or so. Add in 14 other Atlanta metropolitan counties and I'll guess that 400,000 arrests are performed annually in the metropolitan area. No less than 1,100 every day. What politician or journalist EVER reported this?

The Constitutional Rights for a speedy trial are violated hundreds of times every day in Metropolitan Atlanta simply because our courts our buried under a load they were never designed to handle. What politician or journalist EVER reported this?

The body count of arrests should be reported daily by news services. This is the reality of crime in Atlanta. This is the reality of a terrible, cancerous soul-sickness of our ever permissive society. Politicians are silent on the hell surrounding their voters because they will NOT get votes by so called "scare tactics" even when those tactics represent the naked truth that politicians and journalists want hidden away in a closet of negligence.

Atlanta radio is silent however, So is TV. So is the AJC. So is the Gwinnett Daily Post. Is this ignorance? Arrogance? Politics? The intellectual laziness of Atlanta journalists is barely short of criminal negligence, and might be considered fully criminal except for the fact such sloppy under-reporting is a nationwide common disgrace. Doctors take a Hippocratic Oath to become professionals. The only oath that journalists are taking today is a Hypocritic Oath if they are pretending that they really report "All The News Fit to Print".

Could journalists and politicians want sites like GwinnettMugs banned? After all, GwinnettMugs should never have had to be created in the first place if journalists and politicians were actually doing their job.

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dman 2 years ago

Hey...dont get caught or get arrested or put yourself is a compromising position and make sure you have clean underwear if you are in a Crash..and you don't have to worry about your MUG being posted.

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falselyaccused 1 year, 11 months ago

Pure ignorance, dman. A few years ago, I was walking home in the early evening with my wife and kids from a 3rd grade fundraiser and a rookie bicycle cop thought I matched the description of a B&E suspect from a quarter of a mile away. Even with his ridiculous accusations, I thought being cooperative was the right thing to do. Maybe I was right, but I still spent the night in jail until my hearing the next morning. The charges were immediately dropped, with apologies. Fast forward two years, now my picture is on mugshots.com with B&E charges... forget guilty until proven innocent. It shows up on the first page of a google search for my name, and I've lost hundreds of thousands of dollars of work, because my business contacts require "upstanding" individuals. I AM an upstanding individual. I haven't done anything wrong, but people don't read past the listed charges, and as you exemplify, they certainly don't think it's possible to be falsely accused. Clean underwear, indeed. Fast forward another six months, my legal record has now been expunged, and my mugshot has been removed from the sheriff's website. However, these mugshot companies refuse to take my picture and the charges down because they expect that at some point, I'm going to break down and pay them $400 to remove it. But that doesn't fix it, because as soon as you pay one, now they know that you are someone who is willing to pay to have it removed, and they send your picture to another mugshot website that quickly posts it. You will spend the rest of your life paying $400 to different companies who are all working together to screw people over for money. I only hope this extortion racket gets fixed before you, "dman", get falsely accused and arrested for something, and you get to learn first-hand that your ignorant advice of "don't get arrested" isn't a choice you have when some rookie cop thinks you "fit a description". How was walking down the street with my family a "compromising position"?

Guilty until proven innocent is being thrown out the window. Yes, the website technically puts a disclaimer to protect themselves, but nobody reads that. Regardless of what they disclaim, there is no reason your picture should be shown to the world next to charges that HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH YOU. If you are reading this and you're one of those people who think that this is OK, send me your name and picture and I'll put your picture online with some good SEO that will place rape charges next to your name and picture on every google search for your name. Just tell people it's a false accusation, you'll be fine.

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MrGreenSpace 2 years ago

This is just to give you an idea of some side motives the publishers of mugshots have. A couple years ago, I distinctly remember the solicitations directed to the viewing internet public to make their personal comments associated with any mugshot, in particular. I suppose it was meant to add humor and humiliation in most cases, but that whole idea did not last very long, I recall. Predictably, the posted comments quickly degenerated into stereotypical ethnic humor. During that short period of time, I honestly could not say that I was proud to live in Gwinnett. In fact, I still can't believe we had to go through that.

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gwinnettisgreat1 2 years ago

I agree with what dman said, if you don't mess up, you don't get your picture taken.

Then you have the ones that didn't mess up, still got their picture taken and published and are found not guilty. But how many of those are there, compared to the LOSERS of the world? My own sister has her mugshot on the internet as well, but I don't feel sorry for her. She messed up and its just part of the price you pay when you screw up. Suck it up.

I like knowing when the cops showed up next door that they arrested my neighbor for Battery and Felony Battery because she used a frying pan to beat the heck out of her husband. Now I know who to avoid at the HOA meetings. Don't need to make the Felon mad!

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falselyaccused 1 year, 11 months ago

So, what you're saying is that people who aren't guilty and are falsely accused should be punished because people like your sister messed up? How is that remotely appropriate? An arrest is just that. It's an arrest. The police had a suspicion, and they acted on it. This would be great if they were ALWAYS right, but then we wouldn't need courts. Once the court has come in and said, "you are not guilty of this crime", how is it appropriate for a website to come in TWO YEARS LATER and post your picture with the charge to show up with your name on the first page of a google search... you know, the same one your new boss or your new clients look at. You are completely missing the point of innocent until proven guilty. Just because you think these extortion sites are providing a service documenting criminals, doesn't mean that trashing law-abiding citizens' reputations with false information is appropriate. And there is no reason you should have to pay $400 to every site that decides to post these lies about you. These sites need to be stopped from posting these lies, because most people who see them don't realize that arrest CHARGES aren't the same as CONVICTIONS. If you don't believe me, let's post your name and picture with rape CHARGES and let you just explain to everyone who sees them what the difference is.

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Don 2 years ago

One very important point is missing here. All of these mugshots are for arrest and this does not mean the person was convicted! We all need to remember innocent until proven guilty is the law. Oh, and yes if you do not live on the edge of acting in an illegal matter then you should have nothing to worry about.

It should stay public record of who gets arrested and for what.

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Mack711 2 years ago

Don agree with you on innocent until proven guilty, however when found innocent then all photos should be removed and not published. The guilty ones should remain on these sites. If found not guilty then the record should reflect that and all information should be removed. For the ones that are found guilty then why not add tehir sentence as well? What do you think.

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BryanTR 2 years ago

That's just not how the system works. Guilty or not, mugshots are simply a matter of arrest records, not dispositions.

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WHATSTHAT 2 years ago

I THINK THEY SHOULD POST THE PICTURES. IF THE CHARGES ARE DROPPED, THEY SHOULD ALLOW THE PERSON TO PROVIDE A LETTER FROM THE COURT AND REMOVE THE PICTURE FOR FREE OR ONLY POST MUGSHOTS OF THE PERSON AFTER THEY ARE CONVICTED. YOU GET CAUGHT YOU DESERVE WHAT YOU GET.

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Joyfriendly123 1 year, 10 months ago

Guilty or not, it doesn't matter. Mugshots should only be accessible to law enforcement to be used for identification only, like fingerprints and DNA. Their databanks shouldn't be accessible by the Internet unless the crime dictates the need for some registry to keep society safe and that process it already handled officially. The search engines should be held responsible for allowing it. This is a new phenomenon, that families are being destroyed this way. Even after criminals pay their debt to society and most of them do, the Internet is now being used as an eternal persecution. It should be considered felony Internet bullying. It is tragic and all who are involved in this should be arrested as criminals themselves. It is quickly developing into a huge dirty business, that forces an ever greater portion of our society to become indigent and a tremendous expense to taxpayers, who now have to pay social services to aid these broken lives. Thank you age of share everything.

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Joyfriendly123 1 year, 10 months ago

Guilty or not, it doesn't matter. Mugshots should only be accessible to law enforcement to be used for identification only, like fingerprints and DNA. Their databanks shouldn't be accessible by the Internet unless the crime dictates the need for some registry to keep society safe and that process it already handled officially. The search engines should be held responsible for allowing it. This is a new phenomenon, that families are being destroyed this way. Even after criminals pay their debt to society and most of them do, the Internet is now being used as an eternal persecution. It should be considered felony Internet bullying. It is tragic and all who are involved in this should be arrested as criminals themselves. It is quickly developing into a huge dirty business, that forces an ever greater portion of our society to become indigent and a tremendous expense to taxpayers, who now have to pay social services to aid these broken lives. Thank you age of share everything.

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BBBExtortion 1 year, 10 months ago

Is this a case of the pot calling the kettle black? Better Business Bureau spokeswoman Dottie Callina says that sites like mugshot.com not be able to extort money arrested felons. How about the BBB and how they extort small businesses by publishing unfounded libel and unsolicited complaints. They are ready to put any small business out of business by giving them an "F" for not cooperating with the BBB (not paying them their fee). Please read this from their website http://www.bbb.org/business-reviews/ratings/ and read the truth about the BBB http://www.bbbthetruth.com/ Their very own greed will put them out of pretending to be a real consumer advocate.

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Myself 1 year ago

A man walks down the street. He can see a woman being beaten. Being a good person goes to the defense of the woman. Cops come to the scene and everyone goes to jail. The good man, the abuser, and the woman. All are booked and photos taken. One person has committed a crime. The abuser. Except the woman and the good man now have a picture on the internet with no description of why they were taken to jail. They could be charged with murder or doing a good deed. Those who would employ them can't tell that from just a picture. Now the good man who tried to protect the dignity of a woman has a disabled wife and bed ridden mother at home. The company he works for closes and can't find more work. He starts on his own to start a business so he invest all his equity from his home to his car to start a business he is very talented in. Except his potential clients see his picture on the internet. They ASSUME the worst and don't ASSUME he was trying to protect a damsel in distress. This affects his reputation. Now he has no income and his home and cars are on the line and he is still needing to support a disabled wife and a bed ridden mother. He then falls into a deep depression. Because of a simple photo. With no way up and all the way at the bottom the man decides to drive up to the Hollywood sign and park his car and blow his brains out. All because of a photo. This story may or may not be true. But there are in fact many stories similar. Not everyone arrested has committed a crime and posting a photo at random with no description of offense can and does destroy peoples lives and it should be illegal if not. Even if the information is public, how it is displayed can make the difference between a mans life or death. Morally, spiritually, or naturaly. Shame companies choose money over dignity.

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