When Your Arrest Photo Appears on a Mugshot Website
Lawmakers are cracking down on sites like Mugshots.com and UnpublishArrest.com. At such a mushrooming online nexus of extortion and blackmail, will the legislation make any difference?
Illustration: Chris Kindred
Lucas Tuberquia appeared in the Newark Municipal Court on a DWI charge in early 2016. A 31-year-old father of three, Tuberquia defended himself that day, as courts don’t normally appoint lawyers to misdemeanor defendants facing traffic violations. The judge dismissed the case and dropped all charges against him, prescribing the minimum court fees and surcharge to be paid over the next three years. Tuberquia was freed from a criminal record.
There was just one problem.
Mugshots taken of Tuberquia at the time of his booking at Essex County prison, where he was held for two hours, had been circulating around the internet. Pulled from police databases, these photos were then posted on websites like Mugshots.com that publish booking images of people like Tuberquia without much, if any, context, and then charge for them to be removed. In the last few years, dozens of these mugshot sites have started operating.
“Now you Google my name, you see the picture there,” Tuberquia explained to me one morning last year at the municipal court in Newark, where I first met him. “It doesn’t give a description of the crime. You can fill in the blanks, paint whatever picture you like,” he said, wrapping an arm around his two-year-old daughter, who sat at his side scribbling on a piece of paper. As a young Hispanic person who is low income and struggling financially, Tuberquia added, “this places an obstacle in my way.”
Captured within the incriminating frame of the mugshot, this portrait of Tuberquia was suddenly accessible to anyone via a simple web search, undercutting his sense of agency in the way he was perceived, hurting the growth of his career and personal life.
Last month, the four alleged co-owners and operators of Mugshots.com—one of the most infamous sites in the burgeoning online mugshot industry to that point—were arrested on suspicion of criminal extortion, identity theft, and money laundering. In a 29-page affidavit, prosecutors with the California Attorney General’s office described Mugshots.com as a business “permeated with fraud.” The affidavit includes testimonials from individuals whose stories echo that of Tuberquia.
“What an ironic development in this case, huh?” said Julius Kim, a criminal defense attorney and vocal advocate against mugshot websites. “The owners of Mugshots.com themselves, get arrested.”
The recent arrests come amid a growing push to crack down on the online mugshot industry. Several states have moved to enact legislation that targets this sort of activity by imposing bans on sites from charging people money for removing their arrest records. New Jersey, where Tuberquia lives, was one of five states to enact such legislation last year, bringing the total number of states with similar laws to 18.
However, the bills do not make provisions for actually taking down these websites. Tuberquia’s mugshots continued to appear on numerous mugshot and mugshot-related sites, including Mugshots.com. After a brief period offline, Mugshots.com continued to be live until the morning of June 18, when it appeared to be offline again. As this story went to press, Mugshots.com was back online with a new page about dismissals and expungements. Dozens of other websites are still up and running.
The question is, will efforts to crack down on the growing online mugshot marketplace actually have an effect, or will it only result in a game of Whac-A-Mole?
James Jacobs, director of the Center for Research in Crime and Justice at the New York University School of Law, writes in The Eternal Criminal Record that in some states, criminal record repositories compile data on arrest records and mugshots available on state websites and indexed in the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Interstate Identification Index (III), a database of rap sheets indexing over 70 million people.
All police departments maintain arrest logs that are deemed public under the Freedom of Information Act. Many police departments, including Newark’s, release daily arrest records online.
Similarly, court records are available for public scrutiny in most states, and some allow subscribers to “buy information in bulk,” according to the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council’s Bill Leuders. “And that's done in part for research purposes,” he explains. If someone wanted to study, for instance, how many of the people charged with cannabis possession were African American, they could do so, he elaborates. Additionally, despite making it harder to monitor and restrict certain kinds of users or subscribers, requests for this data are usually allowed anonymously and with no requirement to state what the information will be used for.
Indeed, some mugshot sites claim to be offering a public service: “Let our award winning team protect your reputation online,” an ad for one site states. “What is the Internet saying about you?” another asks.
This is how sites like Mugshots.com have justified what they do, but that site allegedly extorted “at least” 5,703 people in the US between 2014 and 2017, and earned nearly $2.5 million for booking photo removal services, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a press statement.
Mugshots.com did not respond to repeated requests for comment before and after the arrests.
It included a subject-centered, head-and-shoulder format, with stark, flat lighting, and a narrow aperture for a sharp focus that could capture the greatest detail.
What adds to the power these sites wield is a cultural conditioning that influences the way we’ve come to perceive the mugshot. A fixture in law enforcement practices since the 19th century, mugshots soon gained ubiquity in crime reports published by newspapers, tabloids, and television, becoming “imbued with a connotation of guilt even though they are created prior to a person’s conviction,” researcher and journalist Mary Angela Bock and colleagues wrote in the journal Journalism Studies in 2016.
In fact, this is not the first or only time mugshot use has fallen into contentious debate. In 1903, the New York Senate tried to pass a law to ban “the taking of portraits of detainees who had not been charged,” according to a research paper in which Lourdes Delgado, a research scholar and teacher at Grisart Escola Internacional de Fotografia, Barcelona, examines the history of the mugshot.
The photography of people who had been arrested first began in the mid-1850s. These daguerreotypes were created as artistically as the studio portraits of the day, only they were then displayed separately in what came to be known as “rogues’ galleries.” These exhibitions of “criminal celebrities” attracted spectators much like other art shows, noted a 1857 article in The New York Times.
But the mere appearance of one’s picture in rogues’ galleries became “as much an indisputable indication of criminality as was being in jail,” Delgado writes. “The individual would always be considered a criminal, even if a subsequent trial proved his innocence.” Some judges, she adds, took this as “strong evidence of criminality and therefore reason to apply more severe sentences,” allowing the admission of the police portrait into the court as evidence.
And because the police often arrested people on the vaguest of suspicions, it was common to have a portrait in the rogue’s gallery even if the person had never been charged or was later proven innocent. The New York City Police superintendent acknowledged this problem in 1883, when The Times raised questions on the legality of these photographs, Delgado writes. Nevertheless, the 1903 bill to restrict the use of these police photographs was vetoed by the then-governor of New York.
Soon after, a different model, developed and popularized by the French police clerk Alphonse Bertillon, caught on in America. The Bertillon system gave birth to the modern mugshot, a term that became popular toward the middle of the last century, where a uniform, clinical aesthetic was adopted. It featured a subject-centered, head-and-shoulder format, with stark, flat lighting, and a narrow aperture for a sharp focus that could capture the greatest detail.
This departure from ordinary photography toward an idiosyncratic format specifically reserved for police photos therefore transferred the original “stigma of criminality from the rogues’ gallery” into the new image format, endowing the mugshot with the power to “brand” individuals as criminals through a “semantic osmosis,” Delgado concludes.
Of course, merely appearing in a police mugshot does not mean that a person is guilty of (or even charged with) committing a crime. A disclaimer at the very top of Mugshots.com acknowledges this fact: “The mugshots and/or arrest records published on Mugshots.com are in no way an indication of guilt,” it reads, “and they are not evidence that an actual crime has been committed.”
After all, a lot can happen after an arrest and booking.
“Further investigation may reveal that they have the wrong person or that someone truly didn’t commit a crime,” Kim explained.
This can have severe long-term collateral consequences, especially when the information is misleading, incomplete, and never updated. Sometimes, even after Kim’s clients’ names were cleared, their mugshots, like Tuberquia’s, stayed online, simply popping up on different mugshot sites. Kim told me that having one’s photos appear on such pages can be “incredibly humiliating and demoralizing.”
“It’s disheartening,” he said. “We may have exonerated a client or gotten them back on track, only to have them feel hopeless about their future.”
Because a disproportionate number of minorities face arrests in the US, as shown in a 2014 study on demographic patterns of cumulative arrest prevalence by population, Black and Latinx people are more likely to have their mugshots wrongfully taken and then to have to fight the associated stigma.
In this way, according Leuders, they become easy targets for mugshot websites.
These sites post pop-up advertisements for image-removal services right next to the mugshots themselves, attracting visitors to so-called “takedown” sites—sister services that charge hundreds to thousands of dollars to take down this reputation-damaging content.
Take UnpublishArrest.com. It’s described as “the billing and customer service agent” for Mugshots.com in a now-replaced About page. (“We work with the Mugshots.com database,” the current FAQ page reads, “and can have your mugshot permanently unpublished from The Mugshots.com Database, usually within 24 hours.”) One of the drop-down menu items on Mugshots.com was an embedded removal request form hosted by UnpublishArrest.com itself, in what appeared to indicate that the two sites are part of the same business—one for publishing the content and the other for removing it. (The form has since been removed, though the title of the page still appears.) UnpublishArrest.com did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
According to the California Attorney General’s affidavit, sites like Mugshots.com use takedown sites like UnpublishArrest.com “in an attempt to shield themselves from legal consequences and to use freedom of speech theories in justifying the activity.”
Consider another takedown service, CleanSearch.net, the only site I managed to get a hold of while reporting this story. (Many of these services deliberately conceal their true ownership by hosting their websites through offshore servers while registering domain names and business listings in different countries, according to the affidavit.) CleanSearch offers what its operations manager, who identified himself only as Chris, called “residual content removal” from search engines like Google, Yahoo, and Bing.
Nowadays, according to Chris, CleanSearch receives an average of 5,000 removal requests in a given month. This includes government websites, blogs and other private webpages, online newspapers, articles, and mugshots. “Our main business is promotional publication, website optimization, residual removal,” Chris explained, “which is basically what people understand as pushing down negative listings and promoting positive alternate listings.”
“We operate a [mugshot] database for promotional purposes only,” Chris said, one that the company created by duplicating mugshot and arrest data from other websites, he explained. The purpose of this database was to “target people who have arrests online, so that we can expose them to our service.”
“But it's always free to remove for everybody,” he added.
To get a better sense of what happens after a removal inquiry is submitted, before speaking with Chris, I’d requested a free quote on Tuberquia’s behalf through a form on the CleanSearch website. In response, I’d received an emailed statement citing nine instances of his mugshots’ appearance on different websites, among them Mugshots.com. The statement promised that CleanSearch would “quickly” terminate the pages, including “all images and content from the websites listed.”
Only not for free, as Chris said. The statement included a price quote of $1,175.
Later, speaking over the phone with Chris, I asked how CleanSearch gets content removed from sites that publish these kinds of records. “Nobody knows how it works because it’s very complicated.”
Making the comparison to a restaurant not wanting to share the recipe for its secret sauce, he refused to say much about CleanSearch’s methodology. “That’s none of your business!” Chris shouted, hanging up on me shortly thereafter.
“Our only goal is to maintain a clean search for our clientele,” he said. “As long as Google”—or Yahoo or Bing, for that matter—“lists an arrest database, it’s not our fault, it’s not our proclivity, it’s not our decision.”
Google, Yahoo, and Bing each have their own content removal policies, though primarily, all three prohibit the showing of pornographic content; child sexual abuse imagery; copyright infringement; and personal information that breaches a person’s right to privacy like bank account numbers, credit cards, medical records, and nude or sexually explicit images uploaded without consent. Additionally, the three search engines all emphasize that they have no control over individual websites and what those sites carry. Rather, the companies only have control over search results—through the content removal forms provided by each, or when served a court order to remove “unlawful or infringing content.”
A spokesperson from Google clarified by email that when required by law, Google has a system in place to remove content from search results. However, since no court has made a determination about the removal of mugshots, Google generally does not deem these search results unlawful.
“We recognize that this is a sensitive issue,” the spokesperson added. “Since 2013, we have had systems that work to decrease the visibility of mugshots for searches for people’s names, while being careful not to inadvertently suppress information that is in the public interest, such as sheriff department sites or sex offender registries.”
Yahoo did not respond to requests for comment. Microsoft declined to comment on specific questions about Bing policies regarding mugshot removal requests, but a spokesperson told me the search service provides a way for users to report concerns online.
Meanwhile, to counter websites like Mugshots.com and CleanSearch.net, 18 states, including New Jersey, where Tuberquia lives, have enacted legislation to ban sites from charging money for mugshot removal.
“Some unscrupulous profiteers have sought to take advantage of the availability of criminal justice system information,” the New Jersey legislation reads, “with the potential to harm or embarrass those arrested for, accused of, or prosecuted for a criminal offense.” The actual and punitive damages awarded for violations could amount to tens of thousands of dollars.
The prime sponsor of the New Jersey bill, Senator Maria Teresa Ruiz (D), told me she supported the legislation because she believes these companies are profiting from “people who had misfortune in their lives.” The fact that an agency might be taking advantage of a person who had “paid their dues in society so that [the agency] could get economic gains for themselves, is disgusting,” Ruiz said.
One of Ruiz’s co-sponsors, Assemblywoman Angela McKnight, told me that often it happened that a company would publish a person’s mugshots on several of its websites and then charge the person multiple times for removing the content. “Individuals who have served their time or were arrested but found not guilty, should not be subjected to what amounts to a shakedown by these websites,” McKnight wrote in an email. “The fees only made it more challenging for them to redeem themselves for the mistakes they have made.”
A similar law went into effect in Ohio this January. Florida, a state that has become something of an industry hotbed—CleanSearch’s physical address is in Boca Raton, and more recently, two of the four suspected Mugshot.com co-founders were arrested in Palm Beach—will enact its own version of the bill on July 1.
A 2008 study by the Court Statistics Project found that misdemeanors comprise nearly 80 percent of America’s criminal caseload. Presumably, then, the majority of the database feeding the online mugshot marketplace is made up of people who committed minor infractions.
But regardless of the crime for which a person was booked, these sites are functioning as extortionists, according to Kim, the criminal defense attorney, who asserts that these sites make it a lot harder for people to find work, date, get a loan, rent an apartment or secure admission into college. That these companies ask people for money to take down their arrest records, Kim says, goes to show what they’re really in it for.
Whether someone is guilty or innocent, said Leuders, the freedom-of-information activist, it’s still wrong to extort him or her for money. “I’m unaware of anything that says blackmail is not a crime if the thing you’re blackmailing people about is true,” he said. “Companies that are mining this information for the purpose of extorting money out of people are scum, and I think they should be in prison.”
A 2015 Brennan Center for Justice report, citing a 2014 study that examined demographic patterns of cumulative arrest prevalence of individuals aged 18 to 23, found that nearly one in three Americans has a criminal record. But the authors also saw that “the risk of arrest is not evenly distributed across the population.”
According to those numbers, Black males are arrested most often (48.9 percent arrest rate), followed by Hispanic males (43.8 percent) and white males (37.9 percent.) This means that Hispanic males were about 15.6 percent more likely to be arrested when compared to white males, and black males were 29 percent more likely to face arrest compared to white men. With the arrest ratios already so skewed, mugshot sites can add to the burden of being a minority.
Staggering numbers of people with criminal records have historically been denied employment opportunities, leading to significant losses in the national gross domestic product, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, while also contributing to recidivism and poverty among individuals with criminal records. A 2009 Justice Department research study showed that a prior conviction reduced a person’s chances of getting employed by 50 percent.
To counter these biases, 31 states and over 150 cities and counties across the country had adopted fair-chance policies and “ban the box” initiatives by early 2018, meaning employers in those jurisdictions can no longer conduct criminal background checks until after the hiring process is completed and a conditional offer is made. Hence, making the selection process fairer.
“I know that if you look my name up on the computer, you are seeing these pictures.”
When I first met Tuberquia at the municipal court in Newark last year, he told me that as a result of his arrest, he had lost his part-time job working with a solar energy solutions company as a project coordinator. (His driving license had been suspended and the job needed him to be able to drive.) On the hunt for another job, he interviewed at a job fair for a position with a non-profit community organization helping people with legal or financial needs.
The interview went well, Tuberquia told me. But he never heard back.
“I’ve applied for a bunch of jobs and I think I’m a good interviewer and have qualified,” he said. “Maybe the other candidates are better than me, yes, but I know that if you look my name up on the computer, you are seeing these pictures.”
Put another way, Tuberquia feels the resonance of the online mugshot issue tracks with the unforgiving way society views ex-convicts. That’s not to say he doesn’t “believe in the First Amendment,” he explained, adding that people have a right to know who lives in their community and who their neighbors are. “At the same time,” Tuberquia said, “there are situations like my case, where I’m not a violent offender.”
As we spoke, Tuberquia’s daughter wiggled from his grasp to squat on the courthouse floor, scribbling gleefully on her paper. Tuberquia got up, scrubbed her hands with wet wipes, and gently sat her back down on the bench beside him. After losing his job at the solar company, he took up gigs in bartending and general maintenance to meet his and his family’s needs. Recently, he landed a job with a marketing company doing door-to-door sales.
He likes his new role because it gives him the opportunity to develop skills while continuing to work in the field of energy, something he’s passionate about. He has a strong desire to “develop and grow in every way possible,” he added, so he can overcome the problems that led him to making some regrettable decisions. “A lot of times young people make mistakes,” he said. “Those mistakes become a death sentence.”
If only images of him no longer appeared online, Tuberquia says he’d sense relief. I asked him whether he hoped the arrests of the four individuals associated with Mugshots.com might bring some change. “Will it change things?” he commented. “It will only change things if progress is continued to be made.”
With editing and additional reporting by Brian Anderson.
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