TOLEDO, Ohio – Two Internet sites that make money by posting millions of mug shots of people who’ve been arrested have agreed to stop charging them to take down their photos as part of a settlement in a federal lawsuit.
The lawsuit came about after a number of complaints from people who said the websites were charging hundreds of dollars to remove the mug shots even if the cases against those arrested had been dropped.
The settlement in U.S. District Court in Toledo doesn’t apply to all of the mug shot sites that can be found online, just two — BustedMugshots.com and MugshotsOnline.com.
Similar lawsuits have been filed in Florida, Illinois, and Pennsylvania while legislators in Georgia and Utah have passed laws aimed at stopping the sites from charging to remove arrest photos. Lawmakers in California are considering a similar proposal.
But efforts to rein in the sites have been complicated by questions about whether the attempts infringe on First Amendment rights and the difficulty of tracking down who owns the sites, some of which claim to originate from outside the country.
Some operators say they’re performing a public service by providing information about arrest records that can be found by parents and neighbours without searching through court records.
Attorney Scott Ciolek, who filed the lawsuit in Ohio, says the practice of charging a fee to remove the mug shots amounts to extortion. Eliminating that part of the business model will make it difficult for them to operate, he said.
“That is the biggest victory right there,” he said Tuesday. “We’ve taken away their ability to profit.”
The settlement finalized in late December also calls for the owner of the two sites to pay $7,500 and take down the photos of the three people who brought the lawsuit in Ohio.
Joseph Centrich, an attorney for the company that runs BustedMugshots.com and MugshotsOnline.com, said the sites will continue to operate and post arrest and criminal records but won’t charge to remove the images.
Citizens Information Associates LLC of Austin, Texas, which runs the sites, already had decided in October to stop billing people to get rid of the photos, he said.
“The lawsuit was frivolous to begin with and the settlement simply asked for a policy change which we had already implemented months ago,” Kyle Prall, chief executive and founder of BustedMugshots.com, said in a statement. “The minor restitution amount reflects the unwarranted nature of the lawsuit. We consider it a nuisance payment”
The settlement, he said, will set precedent in protecting the right to publish arrest and crime information online.
The mug shot sites’ operator uses programs to easily collect information from hundreds of police websites and post them online without verifying whether the charges have been dropped or later dismissed.
Ciolek said he has been contacted by hundreds of people who have said the photos have made it tough to find work or have caused trouble even after they’ve been hired.
One of his clients, Phillip Kaplan, of Toledo, said he was asked during a job interview about a charge against him that was later dismissed.