Bill in legislature targets mugshot websites

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SARASOTA - Defense attorney David Haenel clears a client charged with a crime, only to see him convicted online by a mugshot that won't disappear. Websites like mugshots.com have become a cottage industry based on publishing criminal charges and the often unflattering photos that come after the arrest. Even if charges get dropped, or the accused wins acquittal at trial, the mugshot remains for future Google searches to uncover.

"That's problematic in my opinion," says Haenel.

Many of the sites display a prominent link to how people can get their photos off the sites, but it's not as simple as a few clicks on their computer. "Some charge you," Haenel says. "Some charge up to $300, sometimes even more, per site." State Rep. Carl Zimmermann (D-Palm Harbor) believe that amounts to extortion, and has filed a bill (HB 677) that would require website operators to remove personal details and mugshots of people acquitted of crimes or who had the charges against them dropped.

"I'm very sympathetic to what's going on here," says Barbara Petersen of the First Amendment Foundation. "It's just I don't think they can do it the way this bill does it." She says it's unconstitutional because the proposed law tells people what they can publish, which the First Amendment prohibits, as long as the information is true, and the publisher got it legally. "It's not that this (arrest) information is false," Petersen says. "It may not be complete information."

Haenel also finds faults with the bill, if not its intent. "The issue is some of these sites are not in the United States. That's one," he says.

Another issue is that the bill would include government agencies like sheriff's offices, which publish arrest records and mug shots. That makes the bill too vague. For now, he says, clients have to go through a process to have their arrest records expunged, which can take six months or longer, then ask websites to remove the arreste details and mugshots. "The problem is that, in that six-month window period, the image could be all over the internet," Haenel says.