Florida legislative bill targets websites that don't remove mug shots

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — The Florida Legislature is pushing through a bill that targets websites that charge individuals a fee to remove their police mug shots, a practice that some have criticized as a legal form of extortion.

The bill targets companies that obtain booking photos from law enforcement agencies and then put them online, along with the person's name and the charges they face. They then charge arrestees hundreds to thousands of dollars to remove them or face continued embarrassment. Some websites refuse to remove the photos even if the charges are later dropped or if the person is acquitted.

Under the proposed law, an individual could obtain a court order for removal. The website would be subject to a $1,000-a-day fine if it doesn't comply within 14 days. Florida is trailing several states in addressing the practice by such websites as mugshots.com.

"States across the U.S. are moving on this, so we're hoping to catch up," said Sen. Darren Soto, D-Kissimmee, the author of a measure that would require mug shot sites to remove booking photos at no charge. State and local governments would be exempt from the law.

Soto said he worked with the Florida Sheriffs Association in drafting the bill.

In January, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office took its booking photos offline. An open records request has

"They're still an open record, but to get them you have to go through the filing of a request," said Cecilia Barreda, a department spokeswoman.

Mug shot companies, as well as media outlets, use Florida's strong open records laws to obtain content for their sites.

Some commercial sites have begun to include instructions on how to get a mug shot removed, charging by the arrest. At mugshots.com, one arrest costs $399 with the removal fee increasing to $1,799 for five arrests.

Removing booking photos for free would sap at least half of the operating revenue for mugshots.com, said Marc G. Epstein, a Florida lawyer who represents the company.

"We don't solicit business, and we want to get to a point where all the revenue we get is from advertising rather than ads and removal," Epstein said. "But removing for free at this point? When legislators work for free, then we'll work for free."

Wyoming, Georgia and Utah have all passed laws similar to the one proposed by Soto. All measures outlaw the fee-for-removal practice.

At least 12 other states, including Florida, have mug shot-related bills pending, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

When Georgia's law took effect last year, mugshots.com stopped pulling mug shots altogether, for fee or for free, Epstein said.

"That did not get a happy response from people who had just had a bad day and wanted to throw money at it to make it go away," he said.

Legislation introduced last year by Rep. Carl Zimmerman would have required publishers to remove a mug shot when charges are dropped or a not-guilty verdict is reached. The bill died in committee.

Zimmerman, D-Dunedin, also has a mug shot bill this session, although he's going to sign on as a co-sponsor to the House version of Soto's bill being carried by Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Doral.

"I think we're actually going to get this one passed," Zimmerman said. The only reservation he has with the Soto bill is that it only addresses booking photos posting going forward, leaving existing photos alone.

"The idea is that next year we can take that on. It's one thing to remove the financial incentive, but in the future, I'd like to address these sites that are already out there," Zimmerman said.

Efforts to deal with the mug shot industry in Florida have been opposed by media outlets, including the First Amendment Foundation, who are hesitant to back a measure that restricts records access. The new legislation clears that opposition as it goes after the removal profit motive.

"Mug shots are public records, and we can't restrict access to them," said Barbara Petersen, the foundation's president. "This is the idea, to get the people who charge for removal."

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