Does a Mugshot Stay Online Forever?
You’ve been arrested. Once the police took you to the Orient Road Jail for booking, they took your mug shot. They then put your mugshot online for anyone to see, as long as they know your name.
Why? Arrest records and mugshots are public records. That means they are accessible by anyone with an internet connection. Some companies have tried to capitalize on this by re-publishing these mugshots on their own websites and then demanding a fee for taking them down. They do this even if the mugshot is taken off the Sheriff’s website due to a sealing or expungement.
Lawsuits Over Mugshots
One Tampa woman decided to file suit against one of the online mugshot sites. Why? She was apparently dubbed the “hot convict” following the posting of her mugshot online.
Her case was removed to federal court where it was voluntarily dismissed a short while later, which may signal a settlement was reached. Curiously, it seems that her quest to get her photo off the internet and stop being named the “hot convict” has only resulted in more coverage and notoriety. Remember—the internet is forever.
Lawsuits against these sites are most likely hit-or-miss. Many of the companies are located off shore, meaning enforcement of a court order (even if you do win) is problematic at best.
One Florida lawmaker has filed a bill to change the way these online mugshot companies operate. If the bill becomes law, it would prevent websites from taking a payoff in exchange for removing the mugshot.
In theory this would choke off the main source of revenue for most of these sites—payments from people who want their photos removed. If the site did offer to take the mugshot down in exchange for a payoff, the arrested person in the mugshot can then sue them to have it taken down. If the site doesn’t take it down following a court order, the site would be fined $1,000 per day that the mugshot stays online.
While this proposed new law is a step forward, there are some concerns with it:
- The new law would penalize sites only if they ask for money in exchange for taking down a mugshots. While this may cut off the revenue for many sites, it’s probably likely that one or two make enough money to stay in business from simply selling ad space.
- The bill doesn’t address jurisdiction. This means that suits against these websites would probably end up in federal court, which is generally more expensive and complicated than state court.
- Only the person in the mugshot can bring an action against the website. The way the bill is written right now, a person’s estate (if they’re deceased) or their power-of-attorney (if they’re legally incapacitated) cannot bring the action.
The big issue is Florida’s broad public records laws, which allow people to get and use public records (like mugshots) for basically any reason whatsoever.
So what’s the solution? Any law must walk the balance between the public’s right to access public records, and the arrested person’s right to privacy and a clean slate. We’re a long way off from that yet.