Call Kurtis Investigates: Mug Shot Extortion
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Never charged with a crime, people across the country are finding their mug shots on the web and some web sites are demanding money to take them down.
Tony Gniadek remembers the night of an argument with his wife when his young son dialed 911. A Lake County Sheriff’s Deputy showed up to their Kelseyville home.
“He asked me to go with him and I did,” he recalls.
Hauled down to jail, his mug shot was taken. He was released the same night without being charged with a crime. A decade later he searched his name online, and up popped his mug shot on mugshots.com. Under his photo is a button to unpublish it.
“The option is you have to give them money,” he said. “I think in the neighborhood of $400.”
In California, each county is allowed to come up with its own policy on releasing mug shots. Lake County posts all of its mug shots dating back more than a decade on its website.
We’ve found several mug shot websites that repost the pictures. Some are demanding up to $500 to take down each photo.
“That’s kind of like the bully in the high school telling you, Hey I can protect you if you give me some money,” he said.
Former Sacramento Sheriff John McGinness who now hosts his own talk show on KFBK Radio says a mug shot is not a factual finding of guilt. He says it’s important to point out a person is considered innocent at the time the photo is taken. He says it is “not a rare occurrence” for someone to be arrested, but never end up charged.
One woman afraid to appear on camera told CBS13, she was concerned her mug shot posted on one of these sites could hurt her career or reputation. She was never charged with a crime, but paid a site anyway to have the picture taken down. She says it then popped up on another site. She’s paid $1,300 so far and is concerned it’ll show up somewhere else.
Ohio Attorney Scott Ciolek has filed a class action lawsuit against several mug shot site operators claiming they’ve made millions of dollars and he thinks they’re working together.
“This is the largest extortion ring that I’ve ever heard of,” he said.
Democratic State Senator Jerry Hill also calls it extortion. He’s come up with a solution to the problem in a bill that would make it illegal to profit off mug shots.
“The goal of the bill is to have those websites go out of business, because they lost their ability to make money,” Hill said.
CBS13 reached out to a number of mug shot websites. Only JustMugShots.com responded. They ignored questions about the bill, but issued this statement.
Justmugshots.com is against any law that would penalize the publication of truthful information obtained from the public record. The U.S. Supreme Court has said that if a publisher “lawfully obtains truthful information about a matter of public significance then state officials may not constitutionally punish publication of the information, absent a need . . . of the highest order.” Smith v. Daily Mail Publishing Co., 443 U.S. 97, 102 (1979). The First Amendment protects all speech, even speech that some people may find objectionable. Justmugshots.com also does not currently offer arrest record removal services from its site. Any law that would impede its ability to publish truthful information could implicate journalists, newspapers, and have other unintended consequences that impede free speech.
Several credit card companies have come out saying they will not do business with mug shot sites. Google tells CBS13 it works to make sure these mug shot pages show up low on their web search results.
“We made an improvement to our algorithms to address this overall issue in a consistent way. We’re always making improvements to our search algorithms — over 890 updates in 2013 alone — and keep in mind the web is constantly evolving as well. We’re going to continue to work on improvements across the board,” said a spokesperson.
Tony calls the person who posted his mug shot a snake. Even though it’s still out there for all to see, he says he won’t pay one dime to have the picture removed.
“I don’t give into extortion of any type.”