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Why mugshot extortion could soon be illegal in Virginia

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Screen capture of Mugshots.com

RICHMOND – The state Senate has unanimously passed a bill that would make extorting individuals by publishing their arrest records and photos online a Class 1 misdemeanor.

Senators voted 40-0 Tuesday in favor of the measure and sent it to the House for consideration.

Senate Bill 720, sponsored by Sen. David Marsden, D-Fairfax, would make it illegal for a company to post arrest reports and mugshots online and then charge a fee to take down the records. The websites involved often cite the First Amendment as well as open records laws to defend their business activities.

Arrest records are public information, but Marsden said they are being misused by certain websites to shake down people for money. He cited an online publication called Mugshots.com, which charges $399 to remove a person’s arrest photo from its website.

Passage of SB 720, Marsden said, would be “sending a message to these guys to be careful.”

Marsden became aware of the issue after a constituent sought his help in removing online arrest photos in connection with charges that had been dismissed. The individual had been contacted by a company that offered to remove the image if he would pay a service fee.

“He was very upset by this whole thing because it was something that had been thrown out, and it didn’t have any validity to it,” Marsden said.

Last year, Marsden introduced a bill that would have made it a Class 5 felony to post someone’s arrest photo on the Internet and then extort money to remove it. That bill won approval from the Senate Courts of Justice Committee but then was sent to the Senate Finance Committee, where it died.

For this session, Marsden modified his proposal to make the charge a misdemeanor. A Class 1 misdemeanor is punishable by up to 12 months in jail and a $2,500 fine.

Mugshots.com is one of the largest websites that publishes arrest photos and offers to remove them for a fee. Calling itself the “Google of Mugshots,” the company publishes more than 1,000 crime stories each month. It charges users $399 to remove one arrest photo from the site and $1,799 to “unpublish” five mugshots.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re found innocent,” Marsden said. When someone is arrested, “on that day, there is a mugshot. They aren’t telling something that is not true.”

Every day, Mugshots.com updates its database of arrest records and photos. The site, which according to Internet registration records is based in Belize, says it provides a public service by making arrest records more easily accessible to the public.

This is not the first time the mugshot publishing industry has come under fire. Last year, Georgia passed a law making it illegal for websites to obtain arrest photos in that state, post them online and seek payment to take them offline.

By: Meghan Gaffney/Capital News Service
Capital News Service is a flagship program of the VCU School of Mass Communications. Students participating in the program provide state government coverage for Virginia’s community newspapers and other media outlets, under the supervision of Associate Professor Jeff South.