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Monday, Jul 28, 2014
Joe Henderson

Henderson: Pinellas sheriff's mug shot gambit has merit

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Not everyone who gets arrested is guilty, but everyone does get their picture taken when they arrive at the jail. Those pictures are public record, and in the Internet age that means they live long after the case has been decided.

Chances are, anyone who wants to gaze upon someone's moment of misery needs only run a Google search and type in Lindsay Lohan.

There's a difference between that, though, and the cottage industry that has sprung up around these jailhouse mugs. Some sites dedicated to posting arrest pictures exist by charging hundreds of dollars to have a mug removed, even if the person is proven innocent.

So, I understand the sentiment behind Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri's push to put the squeeze on those sites. He said his department will no longer post arrest pictures online, and it's aimed at those classless profiteers.

The good sheriff said, “I think it's extortion. I'm not going to see people treated this way.”

He called the practice “unconscionable.”

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I believe his concern is genuine and admirable. I would agree with his point on those websites. As if being arrested originally wouldn't be unsettling enough for most people, the thought of being cleared of the charge yet still having to pay some sleaze to remove the mug shot from his site is disgusting.

Then again, the First Amendment doesn't make a distinction about what is tasteful or tacky, and therein lies the potential challenge to an idea that seems well-intentioned.

An attorney representing a couple of these sites told the Tribune he doesn't believe the edict will stand up to a constitutional test.

“It's a mistake,” attorney Lance Winchester said. “The public has a right to know who in their county got arrested for whatever it is.”

No one is denying that, and anything that gives even the perception of weakening Florida's open-records law also has to be examined carefully. What passes as something to benefit innocent victims today can be twisted tomorrow by public officials who decide to expand the scope of what we don't need to know.

The public indeed has a right to be kept in the loop on what's happening in our state and community, but it looks like the sheriff's gambit might be crafted in such a way as to protect everyone — starting with the innocent person who shouldn't have to pay one red cent to get his mug off one of these outlets.

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Pinellas mug shots will continue to be available to anyone who submits an open-records request. That includes the questionable websites. It will just be harder for those outlets to use data-mining programs that grab large numbers of these mugs and post them automatically.

Now, everyone will need to obtain a password to log into the sheriff's computer system housing the mugs. That should slow the process to the point where the questionable sites may decide it isn't worth the effort to include Pinellas photos.

That is exactly what the good sheriff hopes will happen.

Here's something I wish would happen: Continue to put legal pressure on these sites until they behave or go away.

Two Ohio sites agreed to stop charging and will take down some photos after three people brought a lawsuit. Similar lawsuits have been filed in other states, including Florida.

I'd like to see the Legislature take up the cause with a law that would prohibit trying to do what those sites have done.

If someone is guilty of a crime, well, there's a chance your picture might wind up in the newspaper or on TV. That's not going to change.

But a case of mistaken identity shouldn't land your picture alongside robbers, muggers and molesters until you pay to have it removed. Some things just aren't right.

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