Booking photos and “blackmail sites”

Richland County has stopped publishing booking photos online, in an attempt to stop feeding “blackmail sites” such as mugshots.com and others that take the photos and publish them, then charging exorbitant fees to remove the photos.  Horry County, Florence County, and others continue to publish photos of persons who have been arrested, providing the means for the blackmail sites to continue their scams.

When contacted by The State newspaper, representatives with Mugshots.com twice refused comment and hung up before further questions could be asked.

The site refers to itself as “the Google of mug shots” and features more than eight million booking photos gathered from jails and prisons in 46 states, including South Carolina.

People who have been arrested often discover that now a google search for their name will reveal their photographs on websites like mugshots.com, who refuse to remove their photos, reportedly sometimes even after their charges have been dismissed and expunged, unless the person pays them a fee.  When a person bites the bullet and pays the ransom to have their photo removed, they may find yet another site playing the same scam.

The First Amendment surely protects publishing the photos, but I don’t think the First Amendment protects the blackmailing of money from those whose photographs are published – we need legislation to address this problem and prohibit these type of scams from operating.  Richland County has taken an important step in recognizing and addressing the problem, but more needs to be done to stop it.

We have been telling our clients we do not get involved with these companies/websites, but it is becoming increasingly aggravating, particularly with clients whose cases have been dismissed and expunged.  Invasion of privacy?  Extortion?  Defamation?  I haven’t put much time or thought into it, and I have no doubt they have consulted with attorneys about their potential exposure and how to avoid liability, but it seems that a viable cause of action should be there somewhere.  These guys are operating in most states – some state’s laws may be more restrictive than others, but if there are any creative plaintiff’s lawyers out there who care, I would hope that a class action suit is in the works somewhere.

In the meantime, we need legislation to stop them from operating in South Carolina, and several questions need to be answered – does the First Amendment cover the blackmailing of money from arrested persons by these websites, as opposed to simply publishing the photos?  Does FOIA cover booking photos and even if it does, are these websites obtaining booking photos through FOIA or are they simply cribbing them from the county’s websites?

Edit:  I changed “extortion” to “blackmail,” since the conduct of these  websites fits the definition of blackmail in the S.C. Code.

One Response to “Booking photos and “blackmail sites”

  • Your post is factually incorrect from the very start. There’s no extortion. No threat is being made by anyone, and therefore no scam going on. People don’t like the model, they don’t understand it, so they scream extortion. Don’t like the service, don’t like the product? Don’t buy.

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