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Published: Wednesday, 12/5/2012 - Updated: 1 year ago

Web sites profiting from mug shots sued

Fees charged to remove online images

BY TAYLOR DUNGJEN
BLADE STAFF WRIER
Scott Ciolek says people should not have to pay to remove their mugshots from online site profiting from them. “They have to pay these Web sites to remove their photo, which is extortion." Scott Ciolek says people should not have to pay to remove their mugshots from online site profiting from them. “They have to pay these Web sites to remove their photo, which is extortion."
THE BLADE/AMY E. VOIGT Enlarge | Buy This Photo

There’s a good chance that if you’ve been arrested in the past decade, your mugshot is available online, probably on numerous Web sites.

A Toledo-based lawyer, Scott Ciolek, is taking on at least five of these sites, of which there are dozens, in a class-action lawsuit filed Monday in Lucas County Common Pleas Court.

The suit claims that more than 259,000 Ohioans have been cataloged on various mugshot Web sites and, to have a photo removed — even if an individual has been found not guilty or the charges were dismissed — the sites charge a removal fee.

“They have to pay these Web sites to remove their photo, which is extortion,” Mr. Ciolek said.

The suit names two plaintiffs: Debra Lashaway, of Holland, and Phillip Kaplan, of Toledo. Five defendants are named: justmugshots.com, bustedmugshots.com, mugshotsonline.com, findmugshots.com, and mugremove.com.

None of the defendants returned calls or e-mails for comment.

More plaintiffs and defendants could be named, Mr. Ciolek said.

Although Mr. Kaplan’s 2011 failure to disperse charge was dismissed earlier this year, his mugshot remains online.

He estimates he’s gotten at least a dozen calls and messages from people asking if he’s seen his photo online.

Mr. Kaplan, a freelance graphic designer and copywriter, said he isn’t sure how much of an impact his eternal presence on the Internet could be keeping him from full-time employment.

“I don't get a lot of call-backs,” he said. “One of the first things people do is type a name into Google. I think it’s affected my opportunities at more gainful employment. It affects a lot of peoples’ chances at employment.”

He said he’s willing to “dig up” the arrest again in hopes of ending the practice of “eternally running somebody’s photos whose case has been dismissed. … This is the illegal selling of peoples’ images. You can’t sell someone’s likeness back to them.”

Mr. Ciolek said he represented Ms. Lashaway in 2011 when she was accused of theft. All of the charges were dropped and her record was sealed.

Even still, her mugshot remains online. Should Ms. Lashaway wish to have her mugshot removed from justmugshots.com, for example, she has two options: appeal or pay up. Because her charges were dismissed, she qualifies for a “courtesy removal,” according to justmugshots.com.

Ms. Lashaway must, in her appeal, send a statement about why she qualifies for free removal (dismissed charges, not-guilty verdicts, and death are the only qualifiers) and proof from a government agency.

Each appeal application is assessed and, if the individual qualifies, information will be removed from the site, though it could take 10 business days, plus additional time for the photo to be removed from search engine results.

An expedited removal is available for a fee. A “standard removal” costs $119.99; a “professional removal” costs $159.99 and includes requests to search engines, such as Google, to remove a mugshot.

Publishing the mugshots isn’t the problem — the photos are public record, available to anyone.

Lucas County Sheriff Lt. Tricia White and Wood County Sheriff Mark Wasylyshyn both said their respective jails’ booking photos are available, but they do not provide them to third-party sites.

“They get them from our Web site,” Lieutenant White said. “We’re not forwarding them on to third parties.”

The legal issues don’t begin until a company starts to profit from the photos, Mr. Ciolek said.

“The real issue lies in the commercial use of it,” Mr. Ciolek said, citing Ohio’s right of publicity law. The law, basically, states that a persona cannot be used for commercial gain without the individual’s written consent. Newsworthiness, public affairs, and sports broadcasts are the few exceptions.

Steve Miller, chairman of the American Civil Liberties Union’s northwest Ohio chapter, said he could not speak specifically on the lawsuit, but said third-party mugshot Web sites are not illegal.

“The ACLU stands for transparency, and what they’re publishing is public record,” said Mr. Miller, whose mugshot from a 2007 arrest is on mugshotsonline.com. “They have the right to publish them if they choose. … And as far as the class-action suit, we can’t comment on a suit like that or litigation unless we’re familiar with it.”

Mr. Miller was one of four members of the Northwest Ohio Peace Coalition arrested for criminal trespassing in 2007, after they refused to leave U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur’s Toledo office.

Mr. Ciolek said there is “a little bit of evidence” that would suggest some of the Web sites are in cahoots with one another, receiving payment from an individual for the removal of their photo, with the photo then showing up on another site.

The defendants have not yet been served with the suits, which were mailed Monday, Mr. Ciolek said.

He has created a Web site for Ohio residents whose mugshots have been posted on any private site at http://counselor.pro/articles/class-action-against-mugshot-websites.

Contact Taylor Dungjen at: tdungjen@theblade.com 419-724-6054, or on Twitter @tdungjen_Blade.

 



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