South Carolina attorneys, lawmakers aim to disrupt business of publishing jail mug shots
Photographer Suzzette White waved her arms and orchestrated her subject to strike the proper pose.
About the bill
S-700 applies to a person or entity that publishes a booking photo of anyone arrested in South Carolina.
To be eligible, arrestees must be acquitted or have charges dropped, dismissed or otherwise expunged.
Arrestees must send a written request by certified mail to those in charge of the website.
Mug shot must be removed within 30 days.
Violations are misdemeanors punishable by up to a $500 fine and 30 days in jail.
People can file civil lawsuits against websites in violation.
Filed in May, the bill is assigned to the Judiciary Committee. The S.C. Senate’s next session begins in January.
Bathed in a strobe’s light, her nervous subject stood in front of a gray background.
POLL: Do you think websites should be required by law to remove booking photos of people whose charges have been dropped or expunged? Find this story on postandcourier.com to vote.
For the past four years, White has been taking pictures in this studio with cinder-block walls. She no longer refers to a sheet on the wall that lists tips on lighting and composition.
Her services are popular. On a recent day, 40 people watched a rerun of the crime drama “Castle” on a big-screen television as they waited for their turn.
“Turn your head to the right,” White told the subject. “Chin up some. A little bit more. There! Don’t move.”
White snapped the photo that popped up on her computer screen. Within minutes, it showed up on her employer’s website.
“You aren’t going to put my picture in the dollar paper, are you?” the subject asked.
White gets that question a lot.
A field training instructor at the Cannon Detention Center, White photographs people booked into the jail. The resulting mug shots are posted to the jail’s website, where they become fair game for public consumption. Berkeley County’s jail has a similar public database.
With more jails adding the technology, the practice has spawned a profitable industry.
Listed with their charges, the inmates’ photos are then posted on websites like Mugshots.com. They’re printed in Carolina Mug Shots, a newspaper that sells for $1 at convenience stores.
The publications make money from advertisements and a tactic a critic called “despicable.” For fees like $899, some websites offer to remove mug shots or halt their posting to spare their subjects from embarrassment.
State lawmakers in the South have been outspoken in trying to disrupt that business scheme. Mirroring a Georgia law that went into effect this year, state Sen. Paul Thurmond, R-Charleston, has proposed a bill to allow South Carolina defendants who get acquitted or whose charges are dismissed, dropped or expunged to ask publications to take down their mug shots.
Erasing them from the Internet today is nearly impossible. When it is, people find clearing their names cost-prohibitive.
“People who are wrongfully accused are being held hostage by these websites,” Thurmond said. “That accusation can be used to get more money out of them or by an employer to make a judgment when it’s not accurate.”
But the push by Thurmond and other criminal defense attorneys has sparked a controversy of its own. Some publishers contend that such laws violate the First Amendment.
“Can government force someone to print or not print something?” Bill Rogers, president of the S.C. Press Association, said. “People have the First Amendment right to publish these things.”
‘Educate the masses’
A picture of a woman facing prostitution charges is emblazoned on the front page of a recent issue of Carolina Mug Shots.
‘Educate the masses’
The page also features smaller shots of people arrested in the Lowcountry for offenses ranging from shoplifting to murder. One section is devoted to inmates said to be transvestites.
On the inside, a disclaimer states that the paper isn’t “responsible for the accuracy of the content.”
Thurmond took out the only front-page advertisement, which encourages defendants to call him. Another ad inside refers to the paper’s website, where it costs $200 to stop a mug shot from being published. Other sites, like Mugshots.com, charge $400 per arrest.
The industry also has given birth to third-party entities. RemoveMyMug.com charges $899 per mug shot and up to $5,000 to scrub the Internet of multiple booking photos for a single customer.
Publishers often remain anonymous. People interested in contacting Carolina Mug Shots are referred to a Myrtle Beach post office box.
A website registered in Belize, Mugshots.com considers itself an ethical standard-bearer. In a statement, its publishers said they strive to fix any errors. But the photos are history, the publishers stated, and they “hope to further educate the masses that an arrest is not a conviction.”
As publisher of the Jail Birds paper, Upstate resident David Lowe Bryant lost his anonymity in April 2012 when his own mug shot showed up online.
The Spartanburg County Sheriff’s Office said Bryant, 31, tried to get a free iPhone by impersonating a deputy at a Verizon store, which sometimes loans cellphones to law officers. Bryant got the $450 phone, and he was later arrested. The revelation sprouted a website dedicated to displaying his mug shot.
“So David,” the website reads. “How does it feel to be a ‘Jail Bird’?”
‘Next to impossible’
Columbia attorney Seth Rose considers the anti-mug shot movement one of his passions.
‘Next to impossible’
As a Richland County councilman, he successfully banned booking photos from the county’s jail website. Specialty sites no longer have access to the full database.
In his campaign, Rose often mentions his own clients.
One was a Charleston man arrested on a disorderly conduct charge for supposedly cursing loudly after a football game. The authorities had confused his client with the perpetrator, Rose said, and the charge was later dropped.
But the damage was done. The embarrassed businessman paid hundreds of dollars to wipe his mug shot from various websites. Rose also has seen mug shots of college sorority members on a “South Carolina Hotties” web page.
“If you’re convicted, then let it ride,” Rose said. “If you’re not, you should have the ability to require them to take it down without paying $1,500.”
Even when people dish out the cash, the results are not guaranteed. An unpublished mug shot sometimes pops up on another website, engaging people in an expensive game of Whac-A-Mole.
That’s why experts at Reputation.com, who polish customers’ online image, typically turn down such missions. The Internet is forever, company spokeswoman Leslie Hobbs said, so people should expect to suffer from the shame of an arrest forever.
“It’s typically next to impossible to get a website to take something down or make a correction ... even if you were exonerated,” she said. “That’s why we support the law that’s currently proposed.”
The stories Thurmond has heard from his own clients partially moved him to introduce the bill earlier this year.
One was a mother who went to a Charleston department store to return wrongly sized clothing that a relative gave to her children. The woman didn’t have a receipt, and the store suspected that she was a thief. She was arrested but later exonerated.
“I’m not suggesting that this is an everyday scenario,” said Thurmond, who worked for three years as a prosecutor. “Most cases are supported with facts. But some people are wrongfully accused.”
The bill considers any website posting South Carolina mug shots to be doing business here. That includes newspapers, TV stations and blogs.
People absolved of all charges related to an arrest could ask a website in writing to remove the photo within 30 days. Any delay could cost site operators a $500 fine and 30 days in jail.
One of the bill’s caveats, though, is that violations by websites based in foreign countries would be difficult to prosecute. Laws already in place require public agencies to trash their files when charges are dropped or otherwise expunged. Charleston County’s jail employs staffers whose job includes deleting mug shots while expunging records.
But Thurmond’s bill would apply to private businesses, and his critics suspect that the measure is the tip of an iceberg.
The anonymous author of the “Charleston Thug Life” blog thinks lawmakers will next devise legislation requiring all information about an arrest to be removed. That would make it difficult to examine how vigorously officials have prosecuted certain cases.
People who plead guilty and go through a pretrial diversion program, for example, would be eligible. Arrested last year on an assault charge, Sheriff Al Cannon later completed anger-management classes, and his mug shot is no longer available through the county’s publicly searchable database.
The blogger, who often points out charges dropped under the helm of 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson, renamed the bill the “Solicitor’s Protection Act.” Wilson refused to comment.
“Have any of you ever posted a mugshot to your Facebook, Twitter or personal blogs?” the blogger wrote. “(That makes you) subject to this proposed amendment.”
Rogers, the Press Association president, cited constitutional hurdles in saying the bill likely won’t succeed if it’s taken up during the legislative session in January.
“If someone was arrested, they were arrested,” Rogers said. “You can’t change that history. But the fact they were arrested is public record.”
But Rogers dubbed the practice of demanding payment to prevent publishing a “despicable” one.
‘Poor man’s’ gossip
In Charleston, attorney David Aylor sees the impact mug shots can have.
‘Poor man’s’ gossip
He has been negotiating a settlement with a publisher that wrongly attached sex charges to a client arrested for failure to pay child support. But Aylor usually tells clients that he can do little about accurate information posted online.
“It’s a poor man’s version of celebrity gossip,” Aylor said. “But all it’s stating is that a person was arrested for this or that. That doesn’t change when a charge goes away.”
As a jail photographer, White sees some inmates make the most of their notoriety. Women sometimes put their hands on their hips and pose. Men strip off their shirts and exhibit their tattoos.
“People are more worried about the dollar paper than anything else,” White said. “Their supervisor at work might get it. They could get fired.”
The next inmate walked into the studio and asked what would happen to her mug shot. The woman said she was a teacher who couldn’t afford humiliation.
“You’re about to be online right now,” White said. “There’s nothing I can do about that.”
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.