Mug-shot sites have constitutional rights
The following editorial appeared in The Las Vegas Review-Journal:
If you get arrested, smile for your booking photo. In one of the latest marriages of technology and entrepreneurship, websites that peddle in mug shots and arrest records are popping up and prompting debate about public records.
The Associated Press reported last week that the businesses including one based in Nevada, justmugshots.com grab all this information for free, using web-scraping programs to collect it from police websites around the country.
And it should be free. It's public information. To the websites' credit, that information is then made available for free, and many people and businesses take advantage of that to run basic background checks.
The problem some people have with these websites is how they make a profit. If you have the unfortunate luck of landing on one or if you did something so stupid that you deserved to land on one you can have your mug shot and arrest record deleted for a price.
The fees can range from a few hundred dollars to more than $1,000, depending on how many records one seeks to have unpublished.
Some arrestees have a big problem with that because they were never found guilty of any charge, they pleaded guilty to a lesser charge, they had the record expunged or the charges were dropped altogether.
The only way to get those records taken down, in most cases, is to pay the fees to the privately run websites yes, that's plural, because these records often end up on multiple sites.
The site justmugshots.com, at least allows a little flexibility, agreeing to remove photos at no cost for those who can show that charges were dismissed, that they were found not guilty or that they were a minor at the time of the arrest. It also deletes the records of the deceased.
The websites have sparked lawsuits in some states and legislation in others seeking to curb their content and make it easier to get photos removed free of charge. However, states put themselves on shaky constitutional ground trying to regulate these businesses. Any attempt to control the use of public information or to put restrictions on who that information is available to creates a slippery slope.
Legislation isn't going to fix the problem. Internet-based operations will continue to break new ground and offend the sensibilities of many. No matter the innovation, the Constitution still applies.
This is yet another reminder that in the Internet age, with easy access to public information and the pitfalls of social media, it's much harder to keep secret life's great screw-ups.