California bill targets websites engaged in 'mug shot racket' 0
Jerry Hill (L) in the Assembly Chambers at the State Capitol in Sacramento, California January 18, 2012. REUTERS/Max Whittaker
SACRAMENTO, Calif. - California lawmakers took steps on Monday to bar so-called extortion websites from posting mug shots of people who have been arrested and then demanding payment to remove the photographs, even from people who are never charged with a crime.
A bill to make it unlawful to solicit or accept payment to remove, correct or modify mug shots online was unanimously passed by the California state senate on Monday, in the latest effort by more than a dozen U.S. states to stop such practices.
"We've heard from a number of people who have been victims of this extortion," Democratic state senator Jerry Hill, who authored the measure, said in an interview Monday. "They have paid money innocently and then been told that their mug shot would be removed, only to find it on five other websites the next week."
Nearly a million people are arrested every year in California, Hill said, but more than half are either not charged or found to be not guilty.
An example is the case of Bob DeBrino, who was arrested but never charged for driving under the influence while on prescription medication for an impending surgery, said Hill, who represents the San Francisco suburb of San Mateo.
DeBrino's booking photo was posted online, and the film producer said he lost business as a result, Hill said in a news release. The websites that posted the picture are demanding thousands of dollars from DeBrino to remove the image, said Hill, a Democrat who represents the San Francisco suburb of San Mateo.
In what legislative researchers for the senate called an unintended consequence of laws making mug shots and other arrest information available to the public, a growing industry has developed that publishes mug shots on a website and then charges those depicted in the photos to remove their images.
"This practice is part of a growing niche industry, 'the mug-shot racket,'" senate researchers wrote in their analysis of the bill.
The bill, which goes next to the state assembly, would impose fines on violators of $1,000 or force them to pay damages and attorneys fees for victims.
If it passes, California would become the sixth state to make it illegal to charge people to remove mug shots from websites, after Georgia, Illinois, Oregon, Texas and Utah, Hill's office said. Another 14 states are considering such legislation, his office said.