By Pam Greenberg
For years, mug shots and arrest records have been available as public records open to inspection in paper files at police departments or law enforcement agencies across the country. The Internet, however, has ended the practical obscurity that paper records used to ensure. Now many types of public records, including mug shots, are posted on the web in digital formats, where anyone can copy them.
And copy they have. Those unflattering and embarrassing mug shots show up as advertisements alongside search results. The business model for many of these mug shot websites is to charge fees, some as high as $1,000, to take down a mug shot of those who can show they are innocent or that charges were dropped after their arrest.
Lawmakers in several states, however, are taking aim at what some see as extortion by these sites. Georgia, Illinois, Oregon, Texas and Utah in 2013 enacted legislation to address these concerns by prohibiting commercial sites from charging fees for removing inaccurate mug shots upon request or by prohibiting sheriffs from releasing mug shots to sites that charge a fee, among other provisions. At least four other states and D.C. also introduced mug shot legislation in 2013.
Critics of this type of legislation, however, assert that public records should remain public—and note that mug shots and crime reporting are an important part of news coverage and the public’s right to know. A Nieman Journalism Lab report about mug shot websites, for example, notes that even when the practices of some are repugnant, "the First Amendment does not allow the government to regulate content simply because it is distasteful."
Legislators are not the only ones taking aim at the sites. A New York Times article, "Mugged by a Mug Shot Online," reports that MasterCard and other credit card companies are cutting ties with the mug shot websites, and that Google has changed its search algorithms so that the sites do not show up as prominently in search results.
Pam Greenberg, a senior fellow in NCS's Legislative Management Program, covers technology issues for NCSL.