Digital extortion

Web sites that post mug shots and then charge to remove them aren’t illegal — but their operators are bottom feeders


In the mad scramble for cash, there’s probably no limit to how low human beings will sink. A case in point: numerous Web sites that post police mug shots — and then charge those who were photographed for taking their pictures off the site, even if they were found not guilty or had their case dismissed.

Such information, even if it’s inaccurate, can prevent people from finding employment or housing, but removing it can cost more than $100. There’s a word for this work: extortion.

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Toledo lawyer Scott Ciolek is fighting at least five of these sites in a class-action lawsuit in Lucas County Common Pleas Court. The suit claims that mug-shot sites that charge removal fees have catalogued more than 250,000 Ohioans.

Third-party mug-shot sites that publish matters of public record are not illegal. But Mr. Ciolek claims that under Ohio’s right-of-publicity laws, people’s photos cannot be used for commercial gain without their written consent.

That’s not a compelling argument for using information or images that already are a matter of public record. It’s less clear, however, whether sites that publish mug shots of people in connection with charges that have been dismissed or repudiated are violating Ohio’s fair-report privilege. State law requires determination of a case to be published when requested.

Over the past decade, most state corrections departments, including Ohio’s, have published offender tracking sites that list, with photos, those who are serving prison, probation, or parole sentences. Besides photos, such sites generally include basic information such as the offender’s age, conviction, and sentence.

Many such sites, including Ohio’s, wisely restrict listings to those who are currently serving sentences. When ex-offenders are no longer supervised, their photos and data are removed.

Any offender tracking site can make it more difficult for people to find jobs and housing — that is, to re-enter society successfully, a goal of every state and federal corrections agency. Sexual offender lists are especially problematic; they frequently include reporting errors or fail to distinguish among different kinds of sexual offenses.

Even so, government-run offender tracking sites provide potentially useful information. They serve an overriding public interest, unlike sites that use information, however misleading or inaccurate, to extort profits.

Whether such sites violate Ohio law will be determined by the courts. Meanwhile, the court of public opinion should recognize the operators of such sites for the bottom feeders they are.