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Mug Shot Website Owners Protest Extortion Allegations
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They are a part of every arrest: the humiliating, unflattering mug shot. Once they are taken, the pictures are public records and remain on file at the sheriff’s office or police station. But now in the digital age, the pictures don’t stay in a file cabinet. A number of websites collect the mug shots and use them to make money. As WOSU’s reports, the consequences can be long-lasting, even for the innocent.
A basic Google search of his own name led Julian Cennamo, to a ten-year-old picture he’d just as soon forget. It’s his mug shot.
“I made a foolish and immature mistake that a lot of young folks do,” Cennamo said.
Cennamo, from Canal Winchester, drove drunk. He was 22.
“That’s very long in my past.”
He contacted the mug shot website, and just like that, they took down the photo. But Cennamo’s booking picture popped up on another mug shot website. And this time, removal would come at a price.
“Several hundred dollars to remove the photo which I certainly would not do and was not happy about,” he recalled.
Cennamo’s picture remains on the site along with thousands of other mug shots.
Websites like bustedmugshots.com and justmugshots.com collect thousands of booking pictures from police stations and sheriff’s offices. The posts usually include the charges, person’s age and arrest location.
Some websites charge up to $400 to have the pictures removed if the person meets certain criteria such as the person was found not guilty of the charge, it was a non-violent crime, or if the person in the mug shot dies.
“There is a crime called extortion,” said Toledo attorney Scott Ciolek.
Ciolek has filed a class action lawsuit against five website operators, including bustedmugshots.com and justmugshots.com.
“You have committed this crime when you demand money in return for not embarrassing someone even if the information that you would otherwise embarrass them with is truthful,” he said. “You are not permitted to demand money in return for not doing that.”
Ciolek also alleges the websites violate Ohio’s corrupt activities and publicity laws.
Ciolek said he has heard from about 2,000 people who say their personal and professional lives have suffered because someone stumbled across their mug shot.
“We’ve heard about people not being hired, losing jobs, not being allowed credit, not being allowed to move into rentals,” he said. “[People] setting up dates for themselves only to have someone Google their name to find out that they’ve been charged with something.”
Ciolek said would-be employers or dates generally do not go directly to the websites. Instead, they find the mug shots through Google searches.
Google is making it harder to find mug shots by dropping them down the list of search results.
Texas attorney Joseph Centrich represents Citizens Information Associates, the owner of bustedmugshots.com and another site named in the suit.
Centrich said it’s not extortion because the company has not threatened or contacted anyone. He maintains the sites simply offer a public service.
“The mug shot got taken for a reason. Maybe you were found not guilty. That’s great,” Centrich said. “But it still happened, and it’s a newsworthy event. And to the extent that those records are public, then the public has a right to know.”
Arthur D’Antonio III is CEO of justmugshots.com. He also denied claims of extortion. And D’Antonio said the website no longer will accept money to remove booking pictures.
“There’s a lot of morality questions around a model like that. And we struggle with those same morality questions ourselves,” D’Antonio said. “At the end of the day, we try to do what we think is best for the public, and so we’re going to do our best to going to try to be a long-term business that doesn’t have to rely on what some people feel is an immoral business model.”
Since the lawsuit was filed, Centrich said his client’s sites stopped charging a fee to remove a mug shot. A quick check of mugshotsonline.com notes it is re-working its removal policy. And D’Antonio’s justmugshots.com has temporarily disabled paid removals.
Still, Julian Cennamo’s mug shot remains on a couple of sites, though it did not pop up in a simple Google search. Nevertheless, Cennamo, who’s an artist, worries potential clients could find it one day.
But he was quick to note he has come a long way since that mug shot was taken a decade ago.
“The good thing is that if you do search my reputation online you’ll find out that I have a very strong reputation,” Cennamo said.