Florida's new law targeting mug shot websites takes effect soon, but may be hard to enforce

By David Harris | Contact Reporter
Posted June 21, 2018

When a quick Google search can quash one’s hope of obtaining a job or apartment, a new law is designed to help those who have been arrested but not convicted of a crime.

The law, which takes effect July 1, bars websites from demandinga fee in exchange forremoving an arrestmug shot.

But one of the law’s sponsors, Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, said it will be hard to enforce because many of the companies that post arrest photos online — on websites like mugshots.com or mugshotsonline.com —are based out of state or out of the country.

“Admittedly some of these companies, I’m told, are pretty good at hiding themselves,” Plakon said.

He expects some lawyers will band together to form class action lawsuits.

“It gives them stronger tools to go after these guys who are really just modern day extortionists,” Plakon said.

The law is aimed at companies who keep photos of innocent people online forever, harming their reputation if someone does a Google search on them. To charge a fee to remove the photo is akin to a ransom, Plakon said.

It allowsa person whose arrest photo is posted on a websiteto request that the image be taken down. Thecompany isrequired to do so within 10 days or face a daily $1,000 fine, plus attorney fees and court costs.

The law allows individuals to sue the companies.

Lawyer Mark NeJame said his office receives calls daily about removing mug shots. He said he doubts the law will be effective without the possibility of mug shot-site owners being charged with a crime.

“The civil aspect I don’t think has enough teeth in it,” NeJame said. “It’s going to take the fear of criminal prosecution to strike the fear in these predators.”

The Orlando Sentinel publishes arrest photos from Orange County in an online photo blotter that is updated daily. The photos are automatically removed after 30 days and there is no fee involved.

Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, said the law does not apply to news organizations because they don’t charge a fee. She said she’s sympathetic to the bill because it stops exploitation.

“Scamming people is not constitutionally protected free speech,” she said. “Mugshots are public record and you have the right to publish them. Government can’t tell you not to publish something but what it can say is, if you publish it, you can’t scam people out of their money.”

The California attorney general filed extortion and money laundering charges in May against four Florida men who owned and operated the mugshots.com. The website charged $64,000 in fees to about 175 people in California over two years and about $2 million from nearly 6,000 people nationwide, California prosecutorsalleged.

Mugshots.com useda second website, unpublisharrest.com, tocollected the fee, the attorney general said.

As of Tuesday, the mugshots.com website was down, although it’s not clear why.

A spokeswoman for Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi said her office could get involved if a company is blatantly ignoring the civil penalties.

“A violation of this law may trigger enforcement by this office, particularly if there is reason to believe the business is engaged in a pattern or practice of charging a fee to remove the mugshot or of failing to remove it after a request,” said Kylie Mason, spokeswoman for Bondi.

The companies scrape county jail and sheriff’s websites for photos and post them on their sites. Some have tags where users can vote for who’s hot orthe most beaten-up.

NeJame said he had a client who kept trying to get her mugshot removed, only to have another associated website pick it up. The second one required a fee to remove it.

“It was just an attempt to shake my client down,” NeJame said.

Often, people decide it’s easier and cheaper to just pay a website’s fee to get a photo taken down, rather than hire a lawyer and try to force the removal, NeJame said.

“Because most of these companies are offshore, finding them and being successful in actually talking to a human can be challenging,” said NeJame. “It’s expensive for people because there’s a lot of time involved [for lawyers] trying to locate them. None of these sites have phone numbers so you’re trying to deal with emails to an offshore company that has less than ideal motives.”

dharris@orlandosentinel.com, 407-420-5471 or @DavidHarrisOS

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified one of the law’s sponsors. He is Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood.

Source: Orlando Sentinel