Colorado lawmakers take aim at booming mugshot-peddling industry

Forced to find an elegant answer to a complex legal question hanging over online extortion

Colorado lawmakers take aim at booming mugshot-peddling industry

 
DENVER – Online surfer “hollywoodties” is one of many thousands who have turned to sites like “Ripoff Report” to vent a frustration sweeping the nation.

“I got arrested cause I got into a fight at the mall and got all charges expunged since it was my first and only offense. A few years later I googled myself and found my mug shot along with charges I didn’t even commit!” writes hollywoodties, whose account was entered in Alabama. Their complaint is against Georgia mugshot-locator.com, but there’s a site like that for nearly every state and most pull and publish records from all over the country. To take down hollywoodties’ mugshot, the site wanted a few hundred dollars. Worried about getting a job, hollywoodties paid up.

“I paid and they never took it down. I tried emailing them but only got back a response: Pay and it will be taken down,” writes hollywoodties. “Isn’t that blackmail?”

Thousands of Coloradans are arrested each year and the vast majority get a taxpayer-funded portrait — AKA a mugshot — taken in the process.

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Many sites offer tiered pricing structures to pull multiple mugshots, such as this one “unpublisharrest.com”

Those mugshots are considered public record, which means they have to be released to anyone who asks for them. That policy has triggered the creation of a cottage industry: websites around the country that request the photos from local law enforcement, post them, and charge the subjects to pay an average of $400 to pull the embarrassing pictures from public view. At least 80 companies around the country have tapped into this public-shaming market. That means you would need to shell out $32,000 if you wanted to remove your image from all of them to ensure that a mugshot isn’t the first thing a potential employer or love interest sees when they do a little googling.

When her constituents complained about the privacy issue, Boulder Rep. KC Becker — who works as an attorney — said the practice sounded criminal. She decided to carry a bill to criminalize it. And then she learned that was easier said than done.

General disgust with the online mugshot extortion industry has been a topic of national conversation for at least a few years. At the crux of the issue is the fact that because mugshots are classified as public criminal justice records, the U.S. Supreme Court considers them already published and you can’t be charged for extortion for re-publishing something that’s already public. As it turns out, you can’t make it illegal to publish something that’s already in the public domain.

Working with police chiefs, open records advocates and the state’s Attorney General, Becker and her Senate-side co-sponsor Sen. Lucia Guzman of Denver have come up with a crafty solution in the much-revised HB 1047.

The bill simply requires anyone requesting a mugshot to sign a form saying they won’t put it on a website that makes people pay to remove the image. The enforcement mechanism then hinges on the form itself instead of getting tangled up in the definition of extortion. Basically, if you lie on the form it’s an unclassified misdemeanor and the state can prosecute in addition to levying a $1,000 fine.

“It doesn’t keep someone from getting these mugshots, as they are public records, but it does take away the incentive for these companies to get them because their main goal is to make a business out of it by charging someone to remove the picture,” said Guzman in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The Committee agreed, saying that even thought it may be difficult to enforce — with international websites, for example — the measure would at least act as a deterrent to entrepreneurs looking to make a buck on people’s humiliation.

Judiciary approved the bill unanimously Wednesday and it now heads to the Senate floor.

[If HB 1047 passes, The Colorado Independent would totally still be allowed to publish this mugshot of Justin Bieber because we’re not offering to take it down for pay. Also the Beibs didn’t run afoul of the law in Colorado and the bill would only protect the visages of state arrestees.]

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About the Author

Tessa Cheek

She writes and makes photos about communities. Her book, Great Wall Style, a monograph-profile-lyric essay, is out from Images Publishing. tcheek@coloradoindependent.com | 720-440-2527 | @tessacheek

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