When Richland County councilman and defense attorney Seth Rose found websites posting his clients’ booking photos and charging them hundreds of dollars to have them removed, he had one word for the practice.
“It’s extortion,” he said.
Rose, who represents downtown Columbia and USC’s campus, said the sites posted every booking photo originally published online by Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center and left them up long after a person had been released on bond, which is when the county takes the mugs down. Getting the photo removed carries a hefty fee – $400 – even if the person has been tried and found not guilty of the crime for which he or she was arrested, Rose said.
After watching several of his clients struggle to have their names cleared online, Rose decided to do what he could to help. This week, after meeting with county attorneys and Alvin S. Glenn administrators, the jail removed booking photos from its online database of detainees. And for now, they’re not being posted any more.
Rose started hearing from clients who weren’t convicted or had their records expunged following arrests and were having trouble with sites such as Mugshots.com refusing to take down their booking photos. Often, his clients’ photos appear in the first page of results in a web search.
“I’ve started telling people to Google themselves,” he said.
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.
Site users can narrow a search to any county in the state and scroll through thousands of photos of jail detainees and prisoners. With more than 9,000 photos, Richland County has the state’s second-largest photo database.
Below each photo is a button marked “unpublish” that redirects users to a Mugshots.com sister site, unpublisharrest.com. There, a person can fill out a form to have the photo removed from the site, and it lists a $399 charge per photo. The site charges the fee regardless of whether a person was found guilty.
Mugshots.com isn’t the only site that charges to have booking photos taken offline. Rose said he knows of a handful of sites that do the same thing, and the charges could add up fast if more of the sites pop up.
“Right now there’s two or three, but what if there’s 10 or 20?” he said. “I feel like it’s lawful extortion.”
Richland County officials will be meeting with jail administrators Monday to discuss what to do next when it comes to the mug shots, county spokeswoman Stephanie Snowden said Friday. They were unaware that sites like Mugshots.com were charging people to have booking photos removed from their sites, she said.
The jail still plans to honor media requests for mug shots, and hasn’t removed names or charges from its offender database. Several other jails throughout the state do not post mug shots. For those counties, Mugshots.com only photos available from state prisons.
Lexington County Sheriff James R. Metts manages that county’s jail. The detention center publishes booking photos from arrests, but removes them from its website when an inmate is released. The jail posts them for the sake of transparency and to save the manpower needed to process Freedom of Information Act requests, jail spokesman Erik Murrah said.
While county officials manage the Richland County jail, the county sheriff’s department also has received complaints about mug shots posted to sites like Mugshots.com, Sheriff Leon Lott said.
“Is what they’re doing ethically right? Probably not. Have they broken a law? No,” Lott said.
He said it bothers him that sites are publishing mug shots regardless of whether the person photographed had been convicted of a crime.
“They’ve been arrested,” he said. “This publication is convicting people.
Rose said the mug shots can be damaging to a person’s online reputation, especially some of the college students that he has represented.
“It can have lifelong ramifications,” he said.