October 27, 2012

Bruce takes aim at mugshot websites

10-27-2012 California:

Sophia Andrade knew she was in an abusive relationship, and something had to be done. While seeking a divorce from her then-husband, the man scratched his own face and blamed her. Andrade was arrested and later exonerated, but a litany of websites like Mugshot.com are demanding money to have her unflattering arrest photo removed from their sites.

Douglas County Democratic legislator Roger Bruce has heard many such stories. In the 2013 legislative session, he plans to introduce a bill outlawing websites from profiting off the shots.

“We’ve been working on this for three or four months,” he said, adding that a draft of the bill already exists. “A number of folks have contacted me with issues about having mug shots posted online. They’ve been exonerated for what they were arrested for and want to get the picture removed. One site wanted to charge three or four thousand dollars. It’s crazy.”

Mugshots are taken any time someone is arrested, but they do not constitute a conviction. Thousands of people are arrested every year and later cleared of charges. Nonetheless, the shots linger indefinitely on popular mugshot websites, and can haunt people for years.

“It sent me into a great depression,” said Andrade, who lives in Douglasville. “I expunged my record, but it wasn’t that simple. It devastated my life and disrupted my family.”

Legally, the shots are public information. For example, the Douglas County jail website has a searchable database of mugshots, and they also appear regularly in newspapers. For-profit sites, however, post the pictures and charge large sums for removal.

Andrade knows of at least 10 such sites but says there are probably more. Getting in touch with site administrators is nearly impossible even with an attorney. When they are reached, between $300 and $800 is demanded to have a photo removed. Some companies own as many as four sites, meaning they can charge multiple times to remove the same photo.

Bruce has no intention of hiding public information, but says removing the profit motive would kill incentive for manipulative mugshot sites.

“I’m not trying to stop the press from publishing public documents,” said Bruce. “The press won’t charge anyone for taking a picture off their site. I don’t want people to charge to have pictures removed from these publications. My thought is, if they can’t charge to take a photo out, they have no incentive to put it in.”

Calls to Bruce come from children whose parents have been embarrassed by the shots, and some who have lost job opportunities.

“No one will tell you that’s why they didn’t hire you, but if there’s no explanation then that’s probably it,” he said.

As a Democrat in a strongly Republican state government, Bruce will need support from the red side of the House to see his bill passed. In conversation, he said both Democrats and Republicans like the idea, but things change when the bell rings in January and many an issue dies along party lines.

He plans to introduce it in any case.

“Everyone I’ve talked to has been willing to sign onto it,” Bruce said. “It’s a question of whether or not they will start partisan politics. I’ve talked to a couple of Republicans, and they see this as a problem, too. But if you’ve been around the legislature long enough you know that doesn’t matter. I’m going to put this bill through, we’ll see what happens.”

Andrade, who sparked the bill through a letter to Bruce, has taken down her Facebook profile because she was so humiliated. She was laid off from IBM before the shot surfaced, but said she’s had problems landing a job since.

“My case was thrown out, it didn’t even go to court,” she said. “I refuse to pay, I did nothing wrong and I was cleared... It’s unfair, this is a misuse of the system. It has its purpose for sex offenders but people are looking up pictures of people with petty crimes or false crimes. It’s all a racket.”

She hopes the law will keep others from being trapped by monetary demands after an arrest that wasn’t their fault.

“I want to fight for everyone else in the same position,” Andrade said. ..Source.. by Haisten Willis / Douglas County Sentinel

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