Once upon a time, we named and shamed by putting the accused in stocks on the town square. Now we put them on the internet.
I am omitting the names because it is impossible to sort the innocent from the guilty. “South Carolina Hottie Bookings,” on a website called Arrests.org, isn’t troubled by such details. On this one website, there are mugshots of 1,000 women arrested in South Carolina over the past two years, many on nothing-burger charges.
Mind you, not one of them was convicted of anything when her mugshot was published. There is the 21-year-old arrested on New Year’s Eve in Charleston for public intoxication. The baby-faced 18-year-old arrested in Myrtle Beach for trying to buy beer. And the 18-year-old from Florence with the ubiquitous “charges unknown.” But no matter, it’s the “hottie’s” mugshot that matters. And there is a place for sometimes lewd comments.
Police mugshots have been around forever — it’s the internet that has changed everything. Nothing in the Constitution requires county jails around the country to post arrest mugshots online, but they do because they are public records.
This has spawned an entire industry of websites that run mugshots. Some charge hundreds or thousands of dollars to take them down. Last week, the California attorney general filed extortion and money laundering charges against four men alleged to be behind Mugshots.com.
Two years ago, the South Carolina Legislature made a good-faith effort to do something by requiring websites to delete the arrest information if the accused can show they have been cleared. The legislation has done little to nothing to slow websites, many of them offshore, or shakedown artists who prey on people desperate to salvage their reputations.
While these efforts are overdue, there is a simpler answer and it is no farther away than your local county jail. The Charleston County Sheriff’s Office just made a change that may save countless people years of grief. Other South Carolina counties should follow suit.
Put simply, when the bathtub is overflowing, the first thing you do is turn off the faucet. That is exactly what Richland County did years ago. There is not a single woman arrested in Richland County on “Mugshot Hotties.” Or any of the other websites. Or men, either.
That is because in 2012 Richland County decided too many people were being hurt needlessly and stopped posting mugshots online. The basic arrest information is on the jail’s website, but without the photo it loses its commercial and voyeuristic value in our reality-show culture. If the media want a mugshot, they can get it through an e-mail system with the jail.
“We are not going to allow websites to (take) every mugshot and charge people for taking them down,” says Seth Rose, a Columbia attorney and Richland County councilman who championed the issue.
The Charleston County sheriff could do the same “with one phone call,” Rose said.
I made a lot of phone calls. One of them was to Capt. Roger Antonio of the sheriff’s office. In response, the county’s information technology department installed a verification system in the jail’s website that has blocked Arrests.org and other operations from automatically harvesting the mugshots.
“I’m glad you pointed it out,” Antonio told me last week. Richland County’s practice of not posting the mugshots still looks sturdier to me, but Charleston’s move is a welcome step in the right direction.
Colin Aliff wants sheriffs to understand the high cost of business as usual.
Aliff was a Georgia emergency room doctor when he and his wife went out to celebrate their first wedding anniversary. It was a modest night out: They went to a bowling alley and then a bar in North Augusta. Aliff, 46, says a bartender insulted his wife, one thing led to another and the cops were called.
He was charged with public drunkenness and disorderly conduct. He had never been arrested before and could have settled it with a $158.50 fine. But having a record as a public drunk isn’t good for a doctor’s career, so Aliff went through a program that allowed the charges to be dismissed and expunged from his record.
It was too late. Almost immediately, the websites pounced, plastering his mugshot all over the web. Since his arrest in 2012, he has paid $4,000 to companies promising to rescue his reputation. It didn’t work — it is still easy to Google his mugshot five years after the charges were expunged.
Aliff says he managed to keep his hospital job, but the environment became toxic. It was impossible to get a new job. Last year he had a stroke and is now disabled. He is getting a divorce.
“It destroys lives,” he says of the yearslong nightmare.
I’ve been a journalist my entire career; transparency is in my DNA. But the internet has shifted the balance in a way that is inflicting lasting damage to people’s lives that is often far out of proportion to their transgressions. America is the land of second chances — the internet is not.
People make mistakes. And people must be allowed to recover. Charleston County’s sheriff last week turned off the faucet. Others should do the same.
Steve Bailey writes regularly for the commentary page. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @sjbailey1060 on Twitter.