Mug shot web sites have been flourishing here in Utah and everywhere else. Apparently, there is lots of pent-up demand for the valuable public-service they provide. I know I personally wake up every morning wondering who might have been booked into jail in my fair city lately. In fact I usually spend a solid hour clicking through badly-lit, out-of-focus pictures of complete strangers over my coffee!
Seriously, these sites seem to make money only because people will pay to make them go away–in other words, they have the business plan of an aggressive panhandler. Actually, they’re worse, like aggressive, self-righteous panhandlers who have some dirt on you. And they pretend that by going away after you pay them, they’re providing you a “service.”
Are Mug Shot Websites Legal in Utah?
I think many people wish they were illegal, but the very fact that they’ve been around for a while now means that no-one has had great luck in proving that they are.
For one thing, there’s the First Amendment. These guys love to hide behind the First Amendment, and it does provide them some protection, but the First Amendment is not an absolute license to say or publish whatever you want. For instance, you can’t yell “fire” in a public theater or threaten to murder someone (seriously), and expect the First Amendment to keep you out of trouble. The fact is, the First Amendment provides different levels of protection depending on what you’re doing. If you are making a political speech in a public park, for instance, you have very strong protection. If you are committing extortion, you have very little protection.
More relevantly, you can’t usually make money off someone’s likeness without their permission. However, there are exceptions for public media. The newspaper can post your photo to go along with a news story without your permission, even though they do sort-of make money off it because they get paid by advertisers. Naturally, these Mug-shot sites posture as if they were news-media outlets, just reporting the facts of public interest and making some money off of advertisers on the side–never mind that most of their advertisers are companies that you can pay to remove your picture from the site.
From what I’ve read, some states are considering laws which outlaw or restrict these websites, but it’s difficult to make a satisfactory legal distinction between one of them and a legitimate news-outlet. Utah’s Governor recently signed a law (House Bill 408), which prohibits the Utah sheriffs from distributing mug-shots to people who will place it on a web-site that requires a fee for removal. But Utah sites seem to be structuring themselves in a way to avoid this law (see below: How to remove your photo from Mug-Shot Sites).
The fact is, there are many different variations of the Mug-Shot site, each one with a slightly different tactic. They seem to exist in a sort-of gray area of the law where most courts have not gone yet.
Can I Sue a Mug-Shot Site that Posted My Picture?
Sure. Anybody can sue anybody. The real question is, do you want to? Yes, you probably do want to. Ok, the real real question is would you still want to if you knew it would probably drag on forever, might cost a lot of money, you might not win, and if you do win, you might not win much? When it comes down to it, after their anger settles down a little bit, most people probably just want to resolve the situation as quickly and easily as possible.
If you’re interested, here’s a story about some people who are trying to sue some Mug-Shot sites. I have yet to find a case where people have won one of these cases. When I do, I’ll post all about it here.
In the mean time, read below about getting your picture off the site and, more importantly, making sure the criminal charges do not follow you around forever. If you have a particular situation with a mug-shot website which you feel needs the help of a lawyer, feel free to contact me to discuss it.
How Do I Get My Picture Off a Mug-Shot Web Site?
The recent Utah law, H.B.408, prohibits Utah Sheriffs from giving mug-shots to people who will put it on a website and charge a fee for removal, so many of these websites I’ve examined offer to remove your picture “if you just ask nicely.” That is, you DON’T actually have to pay a company to remove your picture, despite how hard they try to make it seem like that in the advertisements right next to your picture. As repugnant as it seems to “just ask nicely,” it might be easiest just to swallow your anger and send a simple email requesting it be removed.
Unfortunately, some other websites will only offer to remove your picture for free if the charges have been dismissed or you’ve had the record officially expunged. Or they say that a “free removal” will take months, but if you just pay their “express renewal fee” they’ll have it down in a day or two!
Regardless of the website’s policy, again, make sure you get the case dismissed if you can and get the records officially expunged as soon as you can. It’s best to deal with the whole situation at once and make sure the matter doesn’t haunt you in the future.
Well, What Can I Do to Keep An Arrest and/or Criminal Charge from Haunting Me in the Future?
Under Utah law, you can petition to have your criminal record “expunged” or “sealed” 30 days after the charges are dismissed. A sealed criminal record is removed from public databases in government agencies such as Courthouses or the Utah Bureau of Criminal Investigations. If a person or business inquires about the sealed criminal record, the public employees at the Courthouse or the Police Station have to pretend that it doesn’t exist. If your records are expunged, you are allowed to answer “no” if anyone asks whether you have been convicted of a crime. Also, as I mentioned above, many of these mug-shot web sites remove your picture without charge when you’ve had the record expunged. Click here for more information on expungements, including where you can start if you’d like to do the expungement yourself.
Obviously, the most important aspect of keeping a criminal charge from haunting you in the future is getting a good result in the case! As I mentioned above, you can apply to have a dismissed case expunged after only 30 days. If you are convicted (or plead guilty) to a charge, you will have to wait much longer (from 3 years for an infraction to 10 years for some felonies). If your criminal record (or lack of) is important to you because of your employment, housing applications, or school plans, it might be a wise use of your money to hire an attorney for even a minor criminal charge, so you can get the best result possible and get it off your record as soon as possible. I am a criminal defense attorney based in Salt Lake City, and I’d be happy to speak with you confidentially about your criminal charges, without pressure or obligation. Contact me here.
Mug-Shots sites in Salt Lake.
The Salt Lake County Sheriff did everyone a big solid by declining to release mug-shot pictures to the usual online public databases–meaning that the sites with “Salt Lake City Mug Shots” have a big list of names with no pictures (see below). That’s pretty cool of you, Jim Winder. Unfortunately, the mug shot sites from Ogden, Provo, and the rest of the Wasatch front are still getting photos just fine. Hopefully, the sheriffs in those places will step up and do the same as the Salt Lake Sheriff.