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.
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."
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.