Interim study examines for-profit mugshots

 OKLAHOMA CITY – Sen. Jo Anna Dossett, D-Tulsa, presented an interim study to the Senate Public Safety Committee Monday afternoon looking at the predatory practice of for-profit mugshot websites. 

“Arrest photos, or mugshots, are an important tool for law enforcement, prosecutors, and the news media, as well as the public,” Dossett said. “They’re important for public safety, but this study helped me learn more about the exploitation of citizens by for-profit mugshot websites. We examined the problem and the complexity of the issue when dealing with public records.”

Jill McCormick, a concerned citizen, shared her son’s story. After suffering a mental health episode during the pandemic, he was arrested. Ultimately, his case was dismissed, but his mugshot was circulated on multiple for-profit websites. Dossett explained these sites charge large amounts of money to take such images down, even if the charges are dismissed or an individual is found not guilty.

“His family was able to hire a reputation defender who assists with online reputation issues, but still couldn’t get one of the websites to remove the image. Jill also acknowledged many individuals and families couldn’t afford to hire professional help,” Dossett said. “This young man is doing great now, but that mugshot is still out there, and we hope to help other families avoid this experience.” 

Legislators learned addressing this issue can be complex. Amber Widgery, with the National Conference of State Legislatures, said some states had responded by prohibiting charging fees for removing photos, but noted as fees were prohibited, the pages increasingly used paid advertising instead. Other states have tried requiring removal if a case is dismissed or cleared, requiring a timeline for removal, or blocking posting mugshots on multiple websites. Widgery said she’d seen no evaluation gauging the effectiveness of various legislative approaches.

Eric Epplin, with the District Attorneys Council explained mugshots can help in situations of identity theft and assist in proof of prior convictions. He noted a 2012 attorney general’s opinion which affirmed that a mugshot is an open record and with that comes the right to publish. Open records are available to any member of the public.

Ted Streuli, a journalist and executive director of Oklahoma Watch acknowledged the predatory nature of for-profit mugshot websites but pointed to the need for such images to be available to the press and the public. He explained the images can be helpful when a suspect has a common name shared by multiple individuals and can allow the public to truthfully address who is being arrested, and the condition of the person upon arrest, which would be important proof or conversely, exonerate law enforcement accused of brutality. He also said while the financial incentive could be addressed by making it illegal to charge a fee to take down a photo, it would be virtually impossible to unpublish an image once it is on the internet.

“I appreciate the committee for hearing this study, and to all who made presentations,” Dossett said.  “Clearly this is a predatory practice, but we must proceed thoughtfully and cautiously, so as not to cause any unintended consequences impacting public safety or freedom of the press. I look forward to continuing to work with these experts to find a solution that addresses each of these concerns.”


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