Shakedown or public service? Mug shot websites spread

Thu Sep 20, 2012 11:13am EDT
 
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By Adam Tanner

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Janet LaBarba drank two glasses of wine during dinner at an upscale Dallas restaurant the night she broke up with her boyfriend. Later at a bar she ordered a beer. At home, she found herself crying as she readied for bed. She decided to go visit a friend.

Driving back long past midnight, she ignored blinking traffic lights and cruised through a stop sign. She was hauled down to the police station, charged with drunk driving, and photographed. It was the second time in six months.

The two episodes in 2009 cost LaBarba more than $20,000 in legal fees and fines and landed her in jail for a few days each time. A judge ordered her to wear an ankle monitor for five months. Yet the most stinging punishment, she felt, came when several websites posted her arrest mug shots, so that Internet searches of her name instantly turned up the compromising photos.

"It completely screwed with my life," LaBarba said. "People Googled me and it was very embarrassing." She said the images complicated her search for a job as well as a new relationship when her boyfriend's ex-wife looked up her name.

For a fee, she could have the photos removed. She chose to pay up.

Large data brokers have historically limited who gets to see their detailed files on people through a complicated application procedure that discourages casual users. Now, on the spur of the moment, anybody can access digital secrets, including criminal records, thanks to a proliferation of personal data Internet sites. One subset of these sites features mug shots that can be removed for a fee.

Many among America's 314 million people are affected. U.S. law enforcement officials made more than 13 million arrests in 2010, according to the most recent FBI statistics, although that number includes repeat arrests. The bureau maintains fingerprints and criminal histories for 72 million people, according to its Criminal Justice Information Services. Drug abuse and drunk driving are the most common reasons for arrest.

Clare Dawson-Brown, assistant district attorney in Travis County, Texas, home to bustedmugshots.com's founder Kyle Prall, said she is concerned personal data sites sometimes list incorrect information and do not comply with state orders to erase certain cases from the criminal records. "Now that this information is out there it is ever more horrific for people to get their lives back together," she said. "How do you get this garbage out of there?"   Continued...

 
Kyle Prall, founder of bustedmugshots.com, is seen in a combination of his own undated police mug shots for offenses including illegal consumption of alcohol as a minor, delivering/manufacturing of cannabis, and drunk driving. Prall's website collects publicly accessible police booking photos and displays them. People who find their mug shots displayed on Prall's website, or others like it, can have the pictures removed for what they refer to as a "nominal fee." REUTERS/McLean County Sheriff's Office/Handout