Mugshots.com makes its money by scraping local law enforcement websites for booking photos and then publishing them online, with really good SEO. If you Google the name of someone who's recently been arrested, chances are a result from mugshots.com or a site just like it will be among the top search results. In this way, booking photo websites aren't a lot different from, say, The Orlando Sentinel, which also posts booking photos. The difference is that Mugshots.com also makes money by charging humiliated people hundreds of dollars to have their photos taken down.
A few weeks ago I argued that states should change open records laws to exempt booking photos, or at least limit whose photos can be released. Making an exception for the worst of the worst would satisfy the most common argument for releasing mugshots in the first place ("If someone in my neighborhood has a record of sexually assaulting women or children/settling disputes with violence/breaking into peoples' homes, I deserve to know"), while sparing nonviolent offenders a lifetime of reduced job prospects and social ostracization.
I thought my argument covered all the bases. Then I read an editorial posted last week on Mugshots.com defending the practice (and business) of posting booking photos. Turns out, I wasn't thinking creatively enough at all.
In a post titled "Keeping the Government in Check: Why Mugshots Should Be Released," the proprietor of Mugshots.com goes on at length about why "police should not be trusted any more than any other witness" as they are "not necessarily more trustworthy than alleged criminals." What does this have to do with publishing mugshots and then extorting people to have them taken down?
A public mugshot provides a lasting visual record of the arrestee's physical condition at the time of arrest and if her physical condition worsens after the mugshot was taken, then the government will have to provide an explanation. On the other hand, good police officers also benefit from the publication of mugshots because they can help refute false allegations by suspects of abuse by law enforcement officials while in custody.
Presumably, a private mugshot also provides a lasting visual record of an arrestee's physical condition, so why make them public? So that law enforcement agencies—in the U.S.!—don't "disappear" suspects they way police do in, say, Russia:
Arrest records with mugshots document a person's condition when he was arrested, why the arrest occurred and where you were taken into custody so that the public knows where you are. History has documented many cases in which people taken into custody disappeared before official public records were required on the accused and detained. The surrender of privacy to the creation of a public record is worth the price paid in order to hold the government and its agents accountable and de-escalate incidents by proving that they did their job correctly.
This argument has more holes than a Damon Lindelof script. For one thing, it presumes that law enforcement officers are responsible for an arrestee's appearance in their booking photo. But what if that arrestee had just been in a bar fight? What if they'd rear-ended someone while drunk? What if they were injured earlier in the day? Second of all, why do they have to be public? Police departments create quite a few records that they don't share unless (until) those records are subpoenaed. Also, if Mugshots.com was really doing arrestees a favor, why do so many people want that website and others to stop posting their photos?
The secondary argument is equally befuddling:
Having a public arrest record with a mugshot, especially one accessible online puts a great deal of useful information in the public domain. This means that family, friends, bondsmen, attorneys, etc. can take the mugshot information and use it to get detailed information like bond amounts, release dates, offenses, court dates, and more, so that they can possibly help you much sooner.
I've spoken with quite a few drug offenders over the years, and I've yet to meet a single one whose family members found out they'd been arrested via a website like Mugshots.com. While these sites work quicker and quicker (one person I met was arrested around 2 a.m., the mugshot was up by 6 a.m.), they're not a tool for the families of arrestees. They're for gawking and exploitation. Arrestees still get to make phone calls and they still get to lawyer up. As for bail bondsman? There's usually two or three (at least that many) within a stone's throw of every jail. And again, if Mugshots.com provided a valuable service to arrestees, why do so many arrestees want the proprietors of sites like Mugshots.com to stop what they're doing?
In this case, the simplest answer is the right one. Mugshots.com is not a public service, but it is a perfectly legal business. And that's really all it needs to be to keep on doing what it's doing.
Top image: A mugshot of actor Steve McQueen. We felt comfortable posting it since he's been dead for more than 20 years.