Online mug shot publishing is a niche industry on the internet, using publicly available mug shot photos from law enforcement agencies. But some people who have seen their photos posted online say their experiences in trying to get their pictures removed feels more like extortion.
Posting mug shots online is not a crime in California, but demanding payment in order to take them down is now against the law. State Senator Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo) sponsored a bill, which went into law on January first, making it illegal for websites or individuals behind these sites to accept money for a mug shot photo's removal.
But 2 Investigates found evidence that the practice is still happening. And for victims whose pictures often appear on multiple websites, the process of getting a photo wiped from the internet can feel futile.
Bringing up the past
"I was arrested for shoplifting. That's the only mistake I did in my life," said a Bay Area woman who spoke to 2 Investigates about her 2008 arrest, on the condition of anonymity.
She says the charges were dismissed and the case was expunged. But in 2010, as she tried to move on with her life, she says friends began asking her about her past after googling her name and discovering her mug shot was still available online on a website called Mugshots.com.
"Every single time I see my mug shot appear on the internet it always reminds me about my family. I don't want to hurt my family. This mug shot company really destroyed my life," said the woman.
She says she contacted Mugshots.com and asked for her picture to be taken down, but the company told her it would cost $400.
"That's where they cross the line. That's when they violate the law," said Attorney Brian Kabateck, who is representing plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit against a similar site, Justmugshots.com. Kabateck filed the lawsuit prior to the implementation of the new California law forbidding demands for payment.
The class action lawsuit seeks to get victims their money back if they paid to have their mug shot taken down. It also seeks an injunction preventing the site JustMugShots.com from doing this again in the future. Kabateck says Justmugshots.com made a motion to dismiss the lawsuit but it was denied. Justmugshots.com is currently appealing that decision.
Demands for cash
Despite the new law, 2 Investigates found evidence the practice is still going on with some websites.
"They say we don't want to talk to you any further unless you agree to make a payment," said the woman who tried to get her mug shot removed from Mugshots.com.
2 Investigates visited the same website and called the publicly listed 800-number. The person who answered said for $399 dollars the site would unpublish a mug shot from its site. But when asked about the new California law, the person on the phone argued that Mugshots.com was a national website not bound by the state's laws. But Sen. Hill says that argument isn't correct.
According to Sen. Hill, the law makes it illegal for any mug shot website to accept money from Californians in exchange for taking down their mug shot, regardless of where the site or its servers are located.
The lawyer for Justmugshots.com declined to comment on the lawsuit or KTVU's investigation. On the website itself, under the heading ‘lawsuit threats' it says, "We are not in the extortion or defamation business" and "To date, we have not lost a single lawsuit and we do not expect that to change any time soon."
Like a game of Whac-A-Mole
Even when people pay to have a website take down their mug shot, often the same picture will pop back up on another website, according to Kabateck. He says it's similar to the game Whac-A-Mole.
"They may stop, the first site may stop but a second will pick it up and then a third will pick it up and a fourth. Once you start paying these people they will never stop," said Kabateck.
"It will come to no end," said the woman KTVU interviewed. That is why she says, so far, she hasn't made a payment even though she worries it could keep her from finding a job. "I just want to have a better future."
While it's not always clear who is behind these sites, their motive may be clearer.
"I have absolutely no doubt that this is millions and millions of dollars that we're talking about," said Kabateck.
"If we can eliminate that profit part of it, if they can't make any money, then they're not going to do it," said Sen. Hill.
Sen. Hill says if the sites don't stop accepting money to remove mug shots, he'll go to the California Attorney General, and civil charges could follow.