Mugshot websites under fire

Sen. proposes legislation that allows suits over mugshot removal charges

LAKE PANASOFKEE, Fla. - Tears roll down Lynn Diss's cheeks as she leafs through a family photo album looking at childhood photos of her daughter, who recently died of a drug overdose at the age of 35.

[READ: State Sen. Darren Soto's proposed legislation that would allow Floridians to sue companies that demand payment for mugshot removal ]

"Tracy was always such a beautiful girl," said Diss.

When Tracy Booska was 8 years old, a family member sexually molested her, according to Diss. The mother says that traumatic event led to a lifetime of problems for her daughter, including drug abuse. 

"Tracy was such a good person. A kind person," said Diss. "And as soon as she'd do the drugs, she'd turn into somebody else."

A few days after the funeral, Diss searched her daughter's name on the Internet.  That's when the mother discovered several jail mugshots showing Booska after her arrests for drugs, battery, theft and prostitution.

"I didn't know the Tracy in those pictures," said Diss.

Booska's jail booking photos were posted on the website Mugshots.com.  It is one of several companies that collect the images, which are public record, and then offer customers an opportunity to unpublish the embarrassing photos for a fee.

Diss said she called the phone number listed on the Mugshots.com website.

"I told them Tracy is no longer with us.  She had just passed on Nov. 11.  And I asked them if they would please take the pictures down now.  And then he proceeded to tell me it would cost me $399 for each picture to be taken down."

Mugshots.com had posted 7 of Booska's booking photos.

"I can't afford that," said Diss.  "We're a grieving family and it feels like they're preying upon me."

"Their business model is to charge you to remove embarrassing, tragic, or sad moments in your history or the history of a loved one, and I believe Floridians think that is wrong," said state Sen. Darren Soto.  "Basically, it's legal extortion."

Soto plans to re-introduce a bill this year which would allow Floridians to sue websites that demand money for mugshot removal.  Under the proposed law, an arrestee could seek a court order requiring the website to remove the jail booking photo within 14 days.  If the website operator fails to comply with the order, it would be required to pay $1000 per day that the mugshot remains visible.  Soto's bill died before reaching a vote during last year's legislative session.

"People make mistakes, and they should have an opportunity to move on," said Soto.

Soto's proposed law would still allow government agencies, news organizations, and members of the public to obtain and use the jail booking photos, which are available to anyone under Florida's public record law.

"We believe the digital mug shots provide important information to the public regarding oversight of the criminal justice process and information of importance to citizens," said Florida Press Association General Counsel Samuel Morley.  " We think that Sen. Soto's bill takes the right approach in that it addresses the problem mugshot websites that charge for removal without impeding quick access to such information that the public and journalists rely on."

Local 6 frequently publishes jail booking photos on its website.  "If a user requests that the mugshot be removed from our slideshow, we grant that request," said ClickOrlando.com managing editor Daniel Dahm.  "If, however, the request is about a news story, we verify that charges have been dropped in the case or it's no longer in the judicial system.  Then we will update the story and remove it from the site."

"I don't have a problem with people publishing the booking photos.  There is nothing illegal about it," said Soto.  "It's when you charge to remove it."

Several other states, including Georgia, already have laws prohibiting companies from accepting money to remove mugshots. 

The operators of Mugshots.com believe they have a constitutional right to profit off these public records, according to their website.

"There are tremendous costs associated with running a website as large as Mugshots.com," wrote Jonathan Smith in response to an email from Local 6 seeking comment.  "Whether or not you agree with the published content and our policies is immaterial."

Smith did not provide a response about the proposed law, which could potentially make it impossible for the company to collect mugshot removal fees in Florida.

However, after Local 6 contacted Mugshots.com,  the website offered to remove all 7 of Tracy Booska's mugshots for free once Diss provided them with her daughter's death certificate.  The company said it would also contact Google and request that Booska's photos be removed from the search engine.

"We are truly sorry to hear of the untimely death of such a young woman and realize her mother must be feeling unimaginable sorrow," wrote Smith.  "We can only hope our action affords Ms. Diss some small measure of comfort, as impossible as that may be."

Diss is pleased that her daughter's jail booking photos no longer appear on Mugshots.com.  However, Booska's mugshots are still posted on several similar websites.

"Something needs to be done about this so it doesn't happen to other people," said Diss.

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