Alex thought the incident was behind him.
In July 2011,
Alex was living in an apartment in Oregon with his girlfriend. The two
got into an argument and concerned neighbors called the police. Alex
and his girlfriend were both questioned, and because local authorities couldn't
leave the residence of a domestic dispute occupied, Alex was taken into
custody. He was booked and held overnight, but never charged with a
However, that's when Alex’s problems started. He told Progress Illinois that after being accepted into a Chicago law school, he Googled his own name to see the results. Sure enough, Alex saw his mugshot appear on web sites. Worried that someone from his new school would see his mugshot on the Internet, Alex contacted each site and politely requested it be taken down. All complied except for one, mugshots.com, who’s lawyer told Alex to get the arrest record expunged first.
Determined to get the mugshot removed from mugshots.com, Alex contacted an attorney. The attorney sent the web site owner a letter and Alex was put into contact with the site’s legal counsel. Alex said the web site’s attorney referred to him as a potential noisemaker, and eventually removed his mugshot (mugshots.com representatives couldn’t be reached for comment).
But mugshots.com isn’t the only web site that publishes mugshots. And some, like chitownmugshots.com and bustedmugshots.com, charge a fee for removal. The sites obtain already-published mugshots from county sheriff’s offices and, according to Chicago defense attorney Omar Jaleel, the sites aren’t committing blackmail or extortion.
“These mugshots are public knowledge, something anyone can get access to,” Jaleel said. “They’re not coming to you and saying, ‘you need to get us money to take this bad stuff down.’ They’re not forcing you to do anything or making threats.”
According to the bustedmugshots.com mission statement, a one-time nominal fee is required to begin a review of a case for removal from their database. The fee is waived if the person can prove they were exonerated or found not guilty of the charges. The process at chitownmugshots.com is a bit different. According to the site’s FAQ, a mugshot can be removed free of charge. But the site also states that they have a backlog of removal requests, and one of their advertisers performs an expedited removal service for a fee (neither web site would comment for this story).
“It’s a way to take advantage of someone at their weakest moment,” said Jaleel.
Frank Bilecki, a spokesman for Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, said the sheriff’s office doesn’t have a lot of information about mugshot sites. He added that the sheriff’s office is required by Illinois state law to post mugshot photos. Even if the sheriff’s office refused to post the mugshots, Bilecki said citizens could use a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to obtain them. Nevertheless, Bilecki said the sites are a concern. “It might be worth looking into by the state legislature,” he said.
At least a couple of Illinois legislators are interested in researching the issue. State Rep. William Cunningham (D-Chicago), who spent 16 years as the director of communications for the sheriff’s office, said he finds the mugshot web sites bothersome, but he’s not sure what the fix is. Cunningham said a bill proposing that private sites can’t post mugshots would cause a First Amendment issue. He said before proposing a bill, he would like to speak to an attorney who understands statutes.
State Sen. John Mulroe (D-Chicago), though, said a bill could be proposed that would make it illegal for someone to reproduce a public record and then profit from it. The sites can claim they are doing a public service by posting the mugshots, Mulroe said, but these are not charitable organizations. He said he wants a legislative research unit to check how other states are handling mugshot sites.
One state legislator in Georgia is trying to stop mugshot sites. Rep. Roger Bruce (D-Atlanta) said a woman came to his office and told him about a web site that wanted to charge her $400 to remove her mugshot. Bruce said his office has located several other people who have the same problem. Georgia’s legislative counsel has been researching the issue for a few weeks, Bruce said, and he will propose a bill during the January session.
Bruce’s biggest challenge will be the language of the bill, he said. He said no one’s right to information or the freedom of the press could be violated. “You have to figure out how to word it and where it applies,” said Bruce.
Jaleel said lawmakers in Illinois might need to recruit a computer programmer if they want successful legislation. According to Jaleel, if the sites are using programming to obtain the mugshots, Illinois lawmakers should present a bill that would make obtaining the photos difficult. Or, Jaleel said, a bill could be presented that makes it illegal for a private site that disseminates information from a government site to keep up the information after it is removed from the government web site (Cook County mugshots are taken down after the person is released).
Alex agrees that action needs to be taken. “I never expected to get into a dumb argument and get arrested,” Alex said. “I hadn’t been charged with a crime, but I really felt like a criminal with my photo on a mugshot web site. For a private company to do that to someone’s reputation, it isn’t right.”