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Pinellas sheriff limiting access to mugshots online

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Published:   |   Updated: January 10, 2014 at 07:38 AM

When someone is arrested, how public should their mugshot be?

That question is being debated by lawyers and legislatures across the country as companies that publish mugshots online - and often charge a fee to remove them - have proliferated in recent years. On Thursday, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri jumped into the fray, announcing his agency will take booking photos offline. The names, addresses and initial charges of those arrested still will be accessible on the agency’s website - but not their pictures.

The sheriff, who appears to be one of the first, if not the first, sheriff in the country to initiate such a policy, said the move was prompted by numerous companies that scour law enforcement sites such as his for booking photos. Many of the companies that publish the photos then charge a fee to take the photo off their site, he said.

“I think it is extortion,” Gualtieri said. “I’m not going to see people treated that way.”

The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office’s “Who’s In Jail” website has been online since 2005. Roughly 50,000 people are booked into the jail each year.

The mugshot issue has been percolating around the country for the last couple of years as websites devoted to nothing but booking photos have popped up across the Internet. The sites, some of which break down the mugshots into categories like celebrities and “hotties,’’ have proven popular with the public, which seems to have an insatiable appetite for looking at pictures of the recently arrested.

Gaultieri said his agency takes down the mugshot and booking information of people whose case is dismissed or are found not guilty. But companies with websites such as mugshots.com, justmugshots.com and arrests.org, he said, were charging money, often hundreds of dollars, to remove a person’s mugshot.

“A lot of these people have committed relatively minor crimes or made a bad decision,’’ Gualtieri said. “The reposting of their booking photo isn’t illegal, but charging a fee to remove it is unconscionable, verging on blackmail and clearly taking advantage of someone’s circumstances.’’

“I really felt for these people,” Gualtieri said. “Things happen in life. We’re all imperfect.”

Because companies that publish the mugshots use sophisticated search engines to import thousands of mugs shots from a website in a stroke, Gualtieri said, his new system will make it too labor intensive for them to continue bothering with Pinellas County’s inmates.

Mugshots are legally considered a public record, and Gualtieri said he will continue to provide access to the mugshots for other law enforcement agencies and the media, but those entities will have to submit a request to the sheriff’s office and log into a newly created system to retrieve the mugshots. Members of the public also can submit requests for mugshots.

If mugshot-publishing companies submit requests, the sheriff said, his agency will charge the companies for the time to retrieve them, which is allowed under the state’s public record laws.

The changes to the website go into effect Monday.

Lawmakers in Florida and elsewhere have begun to consider legislation cracking down on websites that publish mugshots, then charge people to take down the photos.

Florida House and Senate lawmakers have filed bills for the 2014 legislative session that would prohibit charging a fee to take down a booking photo from a publicly accessible website. A similar measure died in committee last year.

Earlier this week, in Ohio, two Internet sites that make money by posting millions of mug shots of people who have been arrested have agreed to stop charging them to take down their photos as part of a settlement in a federal lawsuit.

The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office policy doesn’t hold legal weight if challenged in court, said Texas attorney Lance Winchester, who represents Citizens Information Associates, which operates BustedMugshots and MugshotsOnline.

If a law enforcement agency starts to pick and choose who can publish a mugshot, “I don’t think that will stand up constitutionally,” Winchester said.

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

The move infringes on First Amendment freedoms that include websites publishing “public data, newsworthy information,” Winchester said.

“It’s not extortion when the Tampa Tribune publishes a mug shot,” Winchester said.

Some organizations that represent the media have been critical of attempts to restrict the publication of mugshots.

“Our general position is that state and local governments should be addressing bad actors and their misuse,” said Emily Grannis, the Jack Nelson Legal Fellow for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Arlington, Va. “We would rather see full public access to these records. If someone is misusing it, address that problem.”

It’s unclear whether Gualtieri’s decision will have a ripple effect.

The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office will be watching to see how the policy change plays out in Pinellas, Pasco sheriff’s spokesman Kevin Doll said.

“This is being twisted to make a buck off people’s misfortune, and that’s where a change might need to be made,” Doll said.

The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office doesn’t have any plans to change its existing policy of publishing the mug shots on its website, said Debbie Carter a Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman. The sheriff’s office will eliminate an arrest from its website if a case is expunged, she said.

Carter noted, though, that once a photo or other piece of information is published on the Internet, it’s almost impossible to totally remove it.

“Once it’s out there, it’s always out there,” Carter said.

sthompson@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-6504

jpatino@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7659

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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