Under scrutiny, mug shot publishing industry evolves
In the short, three-year history of mug shot websites, they've already shown how easy it is to evolve in novel ways. Experts say that may make legislating them into compliance problematic.Posted — Updated
Rolls of newsprint churn through the labyrinthine rollers of the press, laying down ink in carefully aligned squares on each page. With each pass, the images in the squares become more recognizable as faces — all looking forward, eyes straight ahead — until the pages are neatly folded, bound and stacked on pallets.
In just a few hours every other week, this facility churns out 15,000 copies of the mug shot newspaper NC Slammer for Charlotte and Raleigh.
Billy Alderman's only been at the helm of the Slammer for a year-and-a-half, but the paper existed in a similar iteration for five years before as a fixture in gas stations across the state.
As a print-only publication, there's a temporary quality to the mug shots that appear in Alderman's paper under tags like "Inked and Dangerous" or "Bruised and Busted." But with the proliferation of mug shot websites over the last few years, the NC Slammer isn't the only game in town.
"I think that a lot of people here locally have been exposed to a mug shot newspaper for a decent amount of time now," Alderman said in a phone interview. "But I think people get a sour taste in their mouth when they Google their name and see 10 instances of their mug shots, and the only way to get in contact is to click the big button that says 'Pay to unpublish.'"
"As with so much of technology, it's happened so quickly our thinking around the legal issues is two or three steps behind," said David Ardia, assistant professor of law and co-director of the Center for Media Law and Policy at UNC-Chapel Hill. "That's going to stretch on for years or decades as we grapple with what it means to be either public or private."
Growing up with mug shots
Anne-Marie Weatherly figures she was a sophomore in high school the first time she recognized someone's mug shot online. An acquaintance got picked up for one charge or another, and the resulting booking photo didn't take long to make the rounds among her classmates.
"I never thought it would be me," she said.
A few years later, the Charlotte high school senior was arrested on a felony larceny charge. The charge was dropped after about four months, when she said a former friend confessed to using her to scam a department store out of about $1,200 in clothing.
She knew she was innocent. But she was more worried about how quickly the news would spread – and how long it would linger.
"I knew the moment I was arrested I was going to have my mug shot everywhere," Weatherly said. "That's how it is at my school when people have been arrested."
Her fears were well founded. By the time her parents bailed her out of jail hours later, she said she had about 70 text messages on her phone from friends and classmates asking about the images they saw all over Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
"The moment I got arrested, my photo was out there," Weatherly said. "My charges and my picture were on everyone's phone. It was all over school."
On many of the mug shot websites, her image is still there, a year after the case has been resolved. Since then, she says she's lost roommates and friends and has been forced to explain herself to college officials curious about the charge.
"I knew it would never be over. I kind of just learned to live with it," Weatherly said. "I think recently, my reputation has improved a little bit, but it's still there."
Through several of the sites, of course, she has the option to ask that her photo be removed. Weatherly could pay $399 to UnpublishArrest.com, a company that works with Mugshots.com to get photos taken down.
Weatherly said paying that kind of money was never an option. And even if she were to shell out, it wouldn't do much for the other sites like Mugshots-Directory.com or MugshotsDatabase.com, both of which would charge their own fees – $150 and $175 respectively – for removal of her photo.
"Why should I have to pay money to take my photo down for a charge I didn't get found guilty for? It's a scam," Weatherly said. "If I were to pay it off, I would be thousands of dollars in debt."
Mugshot websites see rapid rise
It wasn't always this way.
After taking a job from a client who was worried about a mug shot online however, Jacques said his firm began looking for ways to outmaneuver the sites, which often showed up prominently in a search for someone's name.
"He gets a DUI and this site becomes a monster site to deal," Jacques said.
Creating the websites isn't too hard for those with some experience writing programs that grab files and data from websites. By tailoring these "web scraping" scripts for each sheriff's or police department's mug shot database, programmers can automatically pool and display the information in one place with little human intervention.
"Every college kid who could write script-writing software started a site almost overnight," Jacques said.
Who actually runs the sites can be difficult to determine, and contacting them can be even harder. Many protect their website registrations behind privacy services and run their businesses through shell companies to obscure their owners. Owners have been listed as "John Doe" on several civil suits levied through the years.
Kyle Prall, who runs BustedMugshots.com and MugshotsOnline.com, responded by email to oppose North Carolina's proposed mug shot laws but declined a phone interview.
The owners of Mugshots.com, registered in the West Indies, did not respond to a request for comment through the website. Neither did Arrests.org or JustMugshots.com.
Aside from avoiding legal challenges, none of which have been very successful, Jacques said it's not hard to imagine why owners would rather stick to the shadows.
"These are people's lives these guys are playing with," Jacques said. "The reason for the secrecy is that someone could really come looking for you."
Efforts to rein in sites have unintended consequences
He said the work largely involves using "relevance management," managing search results in a way that isn't tied specifically to the mug shot industry.
"We help decide and determine what searches to deem relevant to a name search," Ellis said in a phone interview last week.
Although relevance management is a large part of the business, Ellis said he also has a system that "helps remove files from other websites." He wouldn't elaborate on how that system works.
"It's none of your business," Ellis said.
Like Jacques, Ellis said his company was pulled into the industry by client demand, and that he'll go above and beyond to help his clients manage their online reputations. Although he wouldn't say whether Clean Search pays mug shot sites for the removal of the information, he noted the relationship between the two industries is "in the same context that a bail bondsman has with the court system."
"People can look at us and say we're the bad guys and we're in cahoots," Ellis said. But he scoffed at that idea.
"There are some sites out there that still do it, but they want Bitcoin," Jacques said of the virtual currency that can be often be hard to trace. "We won't deal with Bitcoin."
The Times article also prompted changes in Google's search algorithm. Jacques said the move went a long way toward curbing the prominence of the sites in search results.
But with this industry, Jacques said every move seems to have an unintended consequence.
"It's malignant in that sense," he said. "You deal with it in one area, and it shifts and it changes."
Now, some sites are posting articles alongside their databases to look more like news sites, increasing their Google rankings.
"When they come back, they come back worse," he said. "They come back as news sites. Once they become news sites, there's nothing anybody can do about it."
That's why Jacques said he's skeptical of laws meant to target some of the worst actors, like those who charge to take down photos. He said many of the operators have learned they can make more money through advertising – and they're opting not to take the photos down at all.
Add to that the complications with the secrecy of mug shot companies and Jacques said most of the legislation will likely be unenforceable – the law can't fine a company owner it can't find.
"You cannot make a mug shot company that is registered outside this county obey these state laws," Jacques said.
Although Ellis said he's no fan of the mug shot publishing industry, he worries more laws will actually make the sites worse. Far more effective, he said, are the techniques firms like his have used to crush mug shot ad revenues by demoting them to Google obscurity.
"I see many of them as exploitive sites," Ellis said. "And mark my words, we have destroyed more online arrest databases than we have ever removed from."
Public policy seeks careful balance
At its core, the debate over arrest photos is what value they really serve to the public.
"News organizations, ever since the dawn of photography, have published these pictures," Ardia said. "Some more responsible than others, but we've accepted that this is part of the journalist's task in covering the police department."
It's not surprising that the argument varies depending on who you talk to. Bill Rowe, general counsel and director of advocacy for the North Carolina Justice Center, has lobbied against the sites in conversations with state legislators.
"It's hard to defend that it's a valuable piece of information. If you want to know about folks you're trying to hire or engage in some other behavior, you can do a criminal record check, which would be much more accurate," Rowe said. "But having pictures of people – someone would have to tell me what the public benefit is for that."
Yet even those hard pressed to see mug shots as anything more than lurid entertainment acknowledge that there are good reasons why information about arrests should be widely accessible to the public, both as a protection from potential criminals and from law enforcement overreach.
"In America, we don't have police that would go out and arrest 20 political enemies and no one knows what happens to them," Wake County Public Defender Charles Caldwell said.
Given the rapid pace of technology, a careful balance between privacy and accountability will take time to achieve.
"We're kind of running around with sledgehammers trying to develop legal tools, playing whack-a-mole," Ardia said. "We're only gradually moving toward a comprehensive approach."
Part of that approach, Ardia said, may be to let mug shot sites go away on their own, when they're no longer novel to generations who have grown up with them.
Weatherly said she's learned a thing or two from her 2013 arrest. She's now studying to become a paralegal, and hoping can use her story to help people understand that not everybody who appears in a mug shot is guilty.
"It's still going to hurt me, but I'm going to look at the bright side and use this," Weatherly said. "Unfortunately, too many people have been screwed over by these websites."
Copyright 2023 by Capitol Broadcasting Company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.