Are mug shot websites conducting a form of legal extortion?

Mug shots most often capture people at their lowest moment. Anyone that ends up in the unfortunate situation of having their mug shot taken would most likely not want the photos to be spread around for thousands of other people to see. However, there are now several websites that use booking photos or mug shots to make a profit. Here’s how it works: Website staff members comb through police releases and post peoples’ mug shots, often under the guise of being virtuous and anti-crime. If a person wants their mug shot removed from the site, they’ll have to pay up.

One specific site that targets Minnesota arrestees charges $100 to scrub the photos from Google and remove them from the website immediately. A payment of $75 will get the photos taken down after three days, and $50 will allow the photos to be removed after five days. Other sites have been known to charge as much as $1,800 to remove the photos from the Internet. Without payment, most sites will not remove the photos for any reason – even when charges against the arrestee are dismissed or dropped.

The practice is completely legal, however. Mug shots are public information and websites can post them according to the Minnesota Data Practices Act. A spokesperson from one of the sites stated that the practice has been unfairly maligned in the press and that profiting from mug shots is no different from newspapers that profit from public records. He states that sites like his are important crime-fighting tools that are protected by the First Amendment.

A Dakota County sheriff has stated that the sites are essentially legalized extortion. However, he admits that mug shots are public information that must be provided to anyone requesting them. Minnesota legislators are currently looking into methods that might curb the practice while maintaining the sites’ freedom of speech.

It’s debatable whether sites like these are comprised of extortionists that prey on people who are already in trouble or shrewd businesspeople that also provide an anti-crime service. Minnesota courts will ultimately decide their fate if the websites are ever taken to trial.

Source: startribune.com, “Arrestees pay heavy price to keep photos off Internet” Abby Simons, Nov. 23, 2013

Max Keller has won countless jury trial cases involving misdemeanors and felonies, sex crimes, and DWI’s. He is a member of the Minnesota Society for Criminal Justice, which only allows the top 50 criminal defense attorneys in the state as members. Max is a frequent speaker at CLE’s and is often asked for advice by other defense attorneys across Minnesota.

Years of Experience: Approx. 20 years
Minnesota Registration Status: Active
Bar & Court Admissions: State of Minnesota Minnesota State Court Minnesota Federal Court 8th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals State of Maryland

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