Lawmaker Takes Aim at Mug Shot Websites

Critics say sites are extorting the innocent by assessing fees to have booking photos taken offline

Websites that put up mug shots and make people pay to take them down are getting the attention of an Illinois lawmaker.

"I just think it’s inherently wrong," said State Senator John Mulroe, who is backing a bill that would treat mug shots as intellectual property of law enforcement so others cannot profit from them.

Currently mug shot websites rely on public information to get the photos and post them whether a person is guilty or not.

"It’s just sort of an endless circle, that the person could be paying and paying and paying and their face will still appear," Mulroe said.

It happened to Aurora resident Daniel Lawless.

"I think they should be shut down," he said, describing how he paid twice: once for violating a protection order he says he was unaware of, and then a $68 fee to to remove his photo.

Lawless said they took his money but didn’t take down his picture.

"My picture went up right after I was arrested. Whether I was guilty or not, it went up," he recalled.

After a call from NBC Chicago, the website looked into Lawless’ case and removed his picture from the site.

The growing chorus of people complaining about this industry reaches across the country. Here in Illinois, the Attorney General’s office is investigating mug shot websites after receiving about a dozen complaints from Chicago-area residents who say the industry is profiting off of others misfortunes and is responsible for ruining careers.

Some of the complaintants accuse these websites of extortion, calling them despicable. Most mug shot websites require payment to take images down, anywhere from $68 to $399, a practice that is now banned in Utah. Georgia has passed a comparable bill that has yet to be signed. Oregon and Florida are debating similar restrictions.

"The nature of what they’re doing is extortion. They are intentionally embarrassing people and then charging them to take their picture down," said Ohio attorney Scott Ciolek.

Ciolek said he bumped into the burgeoning business when a client couldn’t escape a mug shot that stemmed from a false accusation that had been dismissed in court.

"There were three websites her picture appeared on. Each of them wanted a different fee or were offering different services in how quickly they’d take it down," said Ciolek.

He has now filed a class action lawsuit in Ohio. Ciolek said he gets 50 new calls a day from people affected and plans a federal lawsuit.

None of the mugshot websites we contacted would comment, but some do say online that they will remove a mug shot for free with proof of exoneration. Others say they will still charge for that service. On their sites, many of the companies say they provide a public service: protecting your right to be informed and "to help make crime awareness part of your everyday life in keeping yourself and family safe."

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