S.C. Senate bill takes aim at online mug shot ‘extortion’

The South Carolina Statehouse.

COLUMBIA — A bill aimed at websites that post mug shots and charge people hundreds of dollars to take them down even if they’re innocent has passed its first test in the state Senate.

The bill, which was approved by a Senate panel Tuesday, would require websites to take down the mug shots if a certified letter is sent informing them of acquittal or that charges were dropped. It could be taken up by the Senate Judiciary Committee as early as next week.

The legislation is intended to halt what has been called extortion by websites, such as mugshots.com, that post the photos en masse and charge hundreds of dollars to take them down, said its sponsor, Sen Paul Thurmond, R-Charleston. The photos often remain online indefinitely, potentially damaging reputations and hurting job prospects.

“They literally extort hundreds of dollars from people to remove it. In my opinion, that’s just wrong,” Thurmond said. “It’s more of a fairness thing to me.”

The Senate voted unanimously last year to pass an identical bill, but the House didn’t take it up. Thurmond said he hopes that the Senate can pass it quickly this year to give the House more time to look it over.

Mugshots.com didn’t respond to a request for comment Tuesday, and information about it and similar companies is hard to come by. The website’s parent company is registered in the West Indies and doesn’t say how many people have paid the $399 it charges to take a photo down.

The issue was first raised in South Carolina in 2012, when Richland County decided to stop posting mug shots online so that websites couldn’t download them in bulk. Most other counties don’t appear to have followed its lead — it’s the only one of the state’s five most populous counties, including Charleston, to have done so.

The number of people it affects, however, appears to be in the hundreds of thousands. A search of the site Tuesday returned nearly 450,000 results connected to South Carolina.

At a Tuesday hearing, media groups said they supported the bill’s intent but worried that it was too broad.

Representatives of the S.C. Press Association, of which The Post and Courier is a member, and the Motion Picture Association of America said the bill could be seen as unconstitutional since it dictates what can published.

Bill Rogers, executive director of the S.C. Press Association, said his group will push for narrower wording that would protect news organizations, which write about criminal charges and show mug shots in their daily coverage.

“We’re concerned about some unintended consequences that would really impact the media,” Rogers said.

Thurmond said other states have passed similar legislation without running into constitutional trouble — at least nine have enacted similar legislation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Thurmond’s bill is based on one Georgia passed, he said.

The South Carolina bill would give website owners a month to delete or change posts about someone’s arrest after being notified officially. If they don’t, they could face a fine or jail time, plus a civil suit.