If you have been arrested, no matter what for, one of the first things that happens during the booking process is the mug shot. States have different laws governing the public availability of criminal records, but many make mug shots publicly available almost instantly, and yours could be online in less than 24 hours. Once it's posted, is there any way to get it taken down?
On the surface, posting mug shots might seem like a valuable community service, but an arrest doesn’t equal a conviction. You could end up never being charged with a crime, or your case could be dropped. Nevertheless, your published mug shot could be enough to cost you your job or reputation, for your name to be wrongly besmirched. In such a case, should you pay to have your mug shot removed from the Internet?
- Publishing mug shots online is a big business, which many call shady.
- More than a dozen states have enacted laws prohibiting publishing mug shots online and charging to take the photos down.
- In states that don't have such laws once a mug shot becomes public record, any number of for-profit websites can publish them.
- Instead of contacting the sites directly, you can pay one company to remove the photos for you.
The Business of Mug Shots
In recent years, more than a dozen states have enacted laws to limit posting mug shots online. Measures include prohibiting publishing mug shots online altogether, prohibiting charging to take the photos down, and limiting access of mug shots in the private sector. But in states that don't have such laws, once a mug shot becomes public record, any number of for-profit websites can grab the photos and post them for public view. Even local newspapers generate traffic by publishing photos on their websites.
A simple Google search of someone’s name may return links to these mug shot sites along with the image appearing at the top of the results. Even if the person wasn’t charged with a crime, was found not guilty, or had their records sealed, the images still appear.
The problem is much larger than a single website. Because mug shot images are uploaded to a searchable database, there’s no limit on how many websites could publish the photos. This problem gave birth to a complementary business that some critics say might be as shady as the sites that publish the mug shots.
Contacting all of the websites directly may be daunting, but you can simply pay one company to remove the images for you. Costs range from a few hundred dollars to thousands, depending on how many websites publish the mugshot. One removal site is Erasemugshots.com. It claims that its service is 100% guaranteed and mug shots will be removed in as little as 72 hours.
In most cases paying a fee will result in removal of the image, but that doesn’t guarantee that it is gone from the internet forever.
Should You Pay to Erase Your Mug Shot from the Internet?
Given that it's possible to get your mug shot removed, the next question is whether or not you should pay to have it done. As it turns out, that depends on whom you ask and which sites you use for removal. Some will do what they advertise; others won’t. “For the most part the third-party sites are a waste," says criminal defense attorney Jordan Ostroff. "They will send letters to the other sites and maybe follow up here or there, but it’s really [up to] the main sites that post the pictures to do something about it or not.”
Ostroff believes the most reliable way to get your mug shot removed is paying a fee to the actual site rather than using a third-party service. “The way for that [mug shot website] to make money is to take the payment and take the photo down, whereas the third-party companies just have to [make] a good [try] for you,” he notes.
Cleveland attorney Aaron Minc, who calls the industry “legal web extortion,” disagrees, saying that using a mug shot removal service to get rid of records from multiple websites works. Minc has used them on behalf of clients and found that they’ve done what they advertised. “They just want their money, and then they’ll go away," he says. "In the past, if you paid one site, the mug shot might pop up on other sites, but that’s not often the case anymore.” As with everyone we asked, he cautioned that there is a history in the industry of scam sites.
In fact, there’s evidence to suggest that some of the removal websites work with the posting websites or, in some cases, may actually be the same company. In May 2018 Califonia's attorney general charged four owners of Mugshots.com, which was partnered with Unpublisharrest.com, with alleged extortion, money laundering, and identity theft. At the time Mugshots.com would not remove criminal record information unless a fee was paid, usually $399, through Unpublisharrest.com, which has since been taken down.
States that don't allow mug shots to be posted online and/or companies to charge to take them down include: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, and Virginia.
What If the Case Was Sealed?
If the case was sealed or expunged, you might be able to have the image removed free of charge. New York criminal lawyer Todd Spodek says, “[In New York] if you have a court order sealing the file, including mug shots, and present it to the actual website, they will have to take it down or face legal repercussions.… With the case sealed or expunged, it’s tough for anyone to follow up and confirm the arrest.”
The Bottom Line
Most experts use terms like “extortion” to describe these sites, but the practice isn’t illegal in many states. Anything posted to the internet is available somewhere. It becomes a matter of personal choice whether you want to pay a fee to have a mug shot removed from the internet. But paying to remove what is plainly visible will likely work.