Mugshots Shouldn't Be Extortion Bait

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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Mugshots are a matter of public record. Apparently that gave an idea to some ... well, one hesitates to call them "entrepreneurs," but the word that does spring to mind can't be printed here. (This is a family blog, y'all.) The New York Times recently described one casualty of their entrepreneurial efforts:

But once he is done, Mr. Birnbaum's record will be clean. Which means that by the time he graduates from the University of Texas at Austin, he can start his working life without taint.

At least in the eyes of the law. In the eyes of anyone who searches for Mr. Birnbaum online, the taint could last a very long time. That's because the mug shot from his arrest is posted on a handful of for-profit Web sites, with names like Mugshots, BustedMugshots and JustMugshots. These companies routinely show up high in Google searches; a week ago, the top four results for "Maxwell Birnbaum" were mug-shot sites.

The ostensible point of these sites is to give the public a quick way to glean the unsavory history of a neighbor, a potential date or anyone else. That sounds civic-minded, until you consider one way most of these sites make money: by charging a fee to remove the image. That fee can be anywhere from $30 to $400, or even higher. Pay up, in other words, and the picture is deleted, at least from the site that was paid.

Birnbaum was caught with five ecstasy pills in a routine traffic stop. We will leave aside the issue of whether he should have been arrested for such an offense, and concentrate on the fact that he was. Birnbaum is paying his debt to society. But this quasi-legal extortion means that he'll never get a clean discharge of that debt. He says he doesn't have the money to buy his shot from all the people who are hosting it. And even if he pays off all these reprobates, what's to prevent the owners of these sites from starting yet another site to extract yet another payment?

It seems to me that the solution is to stop making mug shots a matter of public record. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press is fighting this idea, but I have a hard time seeing why the public needs to see arrest photos of celebrities, or indeed, nearly anyone. If there's a genuine public safety threat -- for example, if someone has escaped from custody -- then police can release the photos under an exemption for such situations. Yet although I'm pretty hard-core on freedom of the press, I don't see how the public will be greatly harmed by having to rely on verbal accounts of an arrest. People who've made mistakes need to be able to get a fresh start. This seems a small price to pay for giving them that chance.

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