At a time when personal information can end up online and rocket around the globe in seconds, the 78 million Americans with criminal records are a rich target for websites that collect mugshots from police departments and sheriffs’ offices and charge hundreds or thousands of dollars to have the photos removed. Even people who are arrested but never charged have their photos on the sites, Stateline reports. Since their business practices came to light in 2013, the websites have drawn the ire of state lawmakers who criticize them as exploitative. Eighteen states have passed laws designed to crack down on mugshot websites by banning them from charging removal fees, stemming the flow of mugshots from law enforcement agencies, or requiring that the postings be accurate.
The laws have been largely ineffective in providing relief to those whose photos are featured on the sites. “They haven’t worked,” said Eumi Lee, a law professor at University of California-Hastings who has spent three years studying the effectiveness of mugshot laws for legal review article. Mugshot websites have ignored the laws or quickly figured out ways to work around them. In places where people can no longer pay to have photos deleted, they often have no remedy to get them removed. Mugshots.com, one of the biggest purveyors, has entries for nearly 30 million people. A Stateline review found evidence of the laws’ inadequacy. In most states, mugshots are a public record. The companies can scrape the photos from law enforcement websites, uploading them to their own sites in hours, or put in public information requests to get others. When they’ve been sued, the sites’ attorneys argue that their work is protected under the First Amendment. Among those who defend putting mugshots online are newspaper publishers, whose sites often feature local mugshots in crime coverage.