The New York Times discussed the case of a college senior from Texas, Maxwell Birnbaum, who was arrested for possession of ecstasy during his freshman year while on a road trip with college buddies. Birnbaum agreed to a pretrial diversion program and has since undergone counseling and drug tests, checking in with a judge every six months to update him on his progress. When he’s done his record will be wiped clean, meaning that by the time he graduates he can apply for jobs without a blemish on his record. Well, except one.
Though legally Birnbaum’s record will be clean, a quick search online uncovers several different for-profit websites with copies of Birnbaum’s mug shot. In fact, the top four results for “Maxwell Birnbaum” on Google were mug shot websites.
Though the sites sometimes claim to serve a civic-minded purpose of allowing individuals to check out the potentially unsavory backgrounds of those they come in contact with, the fact is the websites clearly place making money ahead of any other objectives. The Times discovered that rather than insist that mug shots remain online for concerned citizens to view, the sites will almost always agree to pull a picture, assuming you are willing to pay a price. The fees to remove a mug shot can vary from $30 to $400, and even higher in some cases.
Many have argued that this approach amounts to extortion. Those with mug shots online argue that the websites offer evidence of an arrest that can haunt someone’s reputation for years even if the case was ultimately dropped or they were found innocent. Birnbaum noted how he lost a job as an intern with a state representative after an assistant in the office uncovered his mug shot.
In response, a class-action lawsuit was filed last year by an attorney in Ohio who argues that the websites violate the state’s right-of-publicity statute, which gives residents some amount of control over how their name and likeness can be used in a commercial context. The class-action case also alleges that the takedown charges violate the state’s extortion law. The lead attorney says the law is clear that you are not entitled to threaten to embarrass someone unless they pay you money.
Some states have taken action to curb the power of these websites. Just this summer the governor of Oregon signed a bill that requires all mug shot sites to remove the image of a person within 30 days, for free, if they are able to show that they were exonerated or that their record was expunged. Georgia passed a similar law in May while legislators in Utah passed legislation that prevented county sheriffs from handing out mug shots to sites that will charge to delete them.