A Simsbury man says his daughter, struggling with alcoholism, was arrested in Florida recently for disturbing the peace.
She paid a fine, the man says, and the record was sealed.
But soon her picture started showing up on "mugshot" websites that post public-information arrest photographs and charge a fee to have them removed. The man says he found nine sites with his daughter's mugshot, asking anywhere from $300 to $3,000 to have them removed.
"They not only cite the arrest but have her mugshot, which would scare away any prospective employer, landlord or creditor," says the father, whose name is being withheld at his request. "This strikes us as blackmail, but maybe it's legal blackmail."
In most states, including Connecticut, there's no law prohibiting a website from charging a fee to remove a mugshot posted online. Some call it a form of blackmail. Some liken it to extortion.
Tyronne Jacques, owner of RemoveSlander.com — which charges $299 to remove an arrest photo from one of the mugshot sites — calls these sites, and his, inevitable because of easy-access public information.
"As long as sheriff departments treat simple arrests like trophies," says Jacques, reached at his New Orleans home, "this will continue to happen. The first response is always to run after the mugshot guy who's building a site or run after us that provide a [removal] service. One day my service will go away because there won't be a need for it."
Jacques assumes gradually, state by state, charging to remove a mugshot will become illegal nationwide. New laws in Georgia and Oregon require mugshot sites to remove photos — within 30 days, without a fee — of people cleared of charges. But legislation introduced in New Jersey in May would make booking photos public record, available to the public, news organizations and, of course, mugshot websites. The policy governing release of mugshots in that state now varies by county.
Jacques' service charges $299 to remove a mugshot from one site, $699 from three and $1,299 from six. "You have nothing to lose," notes the site, "but the humiliation."
Those whose mugshot is posted on only one site can deal directly with that site.
If you don't pay, however, the humiliation might never go away. A former Greater Hartford resident arrested in 2001 in Florida for scalping a single ticket to a Tampa Bay Buccaneers football game saw his mugshot online, for the first time, six months ago.
"Immediately after that," says the man, who requested anonymity, "I got an email that explained to me how I could get rid of it. I don't know if it was coincidental or it was planned that way. . . . They want to make a deal with you to expunge it."
This football fan says he's not paying. Here's his crime: He purchased a ticket online for about $100 that he planned to give to a friend he was meeting at the game, then resold it outside the stadium.
"The person couldn't show," he says, "so I tried to sell the ticket in the parking lot for $50. It was like a $30 ticket. I sold it for $20 more than it was worth and that's what they arrested me for. It's silly. The circumstances were ridiculous. It was laughable at the time, especially because I took a loss for the ticket I sold."
The man says he hired a lawyer and paid a small fine, maybe $100.
"The Wired article is singlehandedly responsible for the whole industry," he says. "From the point that article came out, there was an explosion of mugshot websites. I was pretty much one of two [mugshot-removal sites]. It was me and a company called Reputation.com. Then the Wired article came out and overnight it taught all these guys around the country, 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds, how to do it. So something that was intended to be informative turned out to hurt more people."
Mugshot sites proliferate in Florida, where the state's liberal public-records laws make mugshots available on dozens of easily searchable Internet databases run by local police and sheriff's departments. In Connecticut, collecting mugshots isn't as easy. Newspapers, including The Courant, and local television-station websites request specific mugshots from local police departments. For prominent arrests, the police departments often supply the photographs automatically.
"A lot of people don't want to talk about the fact that the first mugshot websites were newspapers," says Jacques. "Today, right now, they make money off mugshots just like the mugshot websites."
The Bottom Line will not name any mugshot sites, but it's common to find searchable categories by state, gender or celebrity. Special categories like "Hotties," "Grandmas" and "Grandpas" are also standard. Mugshots of Connecticut arrests are more difficult to find on these sites because the state does not have a central database for public use.
"The Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission has been consistent in ruling that mugshots are public records not exempt from mandatory disclosure," says Susan Kinsman, spokeswoman for the state attorney general's office. "When a case is nolled or dismissed or a finding of not guilty enters, Connecticut law provides for the return to the person or deletion of mugshots."
Kinsman says the attorney general's office has not received complaints about mugshot websites, but "we are aware of consumer complaints regarding sites that post mugshots online and charge a fee to have them removed."
Mugshots have become valuable online "click-throughs," and not just for the mugshot sites and local news organizations.
Last month, a campaign in New York orchestrated by Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice — up for re-election this fall — posted the mugshots of 104 people arrested in a prostitution sting. The difference between "Operation Flush the Johns" and the mugshot sites: The arrested Johns could not pay a fee to to remove their mugshots and lose their humiliation.
"To be honest with you, man, the fix is so simple," says Jacques. "If you're trying to get a group of entrepreneurs to abide by some moral decree that, 'Oh, it's wrong,' it's not going to work. What has to happen is the sheriff's and police departments have to stop posting pictures of someone who just missed traffic court, got a warrant and got arrested."