The cataloging of criminal records is a big business – and some say it’s shady. According to statistics, more than 30% of American adults over the age of 23 have an arrest record. Nationwide, between 10,000 and 12,000 names are added to the FBI’s master criminal database each day, currently housing criminal records of more than 77.7 million individuals.
If you have been arrested, no matter for what, one of the first things that happen during the booking process is the mugshot. States have different laws that govern the public availability of criminal records, but thanks to places such as Florida, which makes mugshots publicly available almost instantly, yours could be on websites in less than 24 hours.
Should You Pay to Erase Your Name from the Internet?
On the surface, that 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, your name unwarrantably besmirched. In such a case, should you pay to erase your name from the Internet?
The Business of Mugshots
A business often described as shady or distasteful exists to profit off people’s misfortune. Once a mug shot becomes public record, any number of for-profit websites 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 a person’s name may return links to these mugshot 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 his or her records sealed, the images still appear. Posting information that could potentially help you to identify dangerous neighbors or coworkers seems like a noble cause, but sites such as mugshots.com cash in not only through ad revenue but also by charging people to remove the images. Fees often range from $30 to $400 to have the picture removed, regardless of your guilt or innocence.
Not That Simple
The problem is much larger than a single website. Because mugshot images are uploaded to a searchable database, there’s no limit on how many websites could publish the image. This problem gave birth to a complementary business that some critics say might be as shady as the sites that publish the mug shots.
Instead of contacting the sites directly, you can simply pay one company to remove the images for you. Sites such as removeslander.com and erasemugshots.com offer the service. In the case of EraseMugshots, it claims that its service is 100% guaranteed, and if any of the sites repost the mugshot, EraseMugshots will have it removed free of charge. In one case the company claimed that removing the image from 15 sites could be done within 7 days for a cost of $1,799.
Is It Worth It?
It depends on whom you ask and which sites you use. Some will do what they advertise; others won’t. Criminal defense attorney Jordan Ostroff says, “For the most part the third-party sites are a waste. 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.” He says that paying the fee to the actual site to remove the mug shot is the most reliable way 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.”
Aaron Minc, a Cleveland attorney who helps some of his clients remove their online mug shots, calls the industry “legal web extortion” but says that using a mugshot removal service to get rid of records from multiple websites works. Minc has used them on behalf of clients and says that they’ve done what they advertised: “They just want their money, and then they’ll go away. In the past, if you paid one site, the mugshot might pop up on other sites, but that’s not often the case anymore.” As with everyone we asked, he cautioned that there’s a history in the industry of scam sites.
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.” Ostroff advises, “I am not sure how much faith an employer or potential employer would put into finding a random site with a photo of an employee but having a clean background check come back for that employee.”
The Bottom Line
Most experts use terms like “extortion” to describe these sites, but the practice isn’t illegal. 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. Mugshots.com partners with unpublisharrest.com to remove the entries on its site at a cost of $399 each, for example.
In most cases paying the fee will result in removal of the image, but that doesn’t guarantee that it is gone from the Internet forever. Anything posted to the Internet is available somewhere. It becomes a matter of personal choice whether you want to continue paying the fees should the image resurface, but paying to solve what is plainly visible will likely work.