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How People Profit from Your Online Mug Shot and Ruin Your Life Forever
This July, Yolina (not her real name) was giving a language lesson to one of her students over the phone when he said he had something to tell her. She hadn’t always taught over such long distances before—she was in California, her student in the Midwest—but after being laid off from her 14-year job as a community college language instructor last year, she’s taken odd gigs whenever she can get them.
“What is it?” Yolina asked in her thick Polish accent.
“I found your mug shot,” her student answered.
“What do you mean?” she said.
“Your mug shot,” he responded. “From when you got arrested in December.”
Yolina was taken aback. “I was humiliated,” she tells me in a phone call this month. “I had no idea it was out there.”
In December 2011, just weeks after losing her job, Yolina and her husband flew to Florida to go on a cruise. They’d been planning it for months and assumed it would be helpful for Yolina to blow off some steam during a difficult period in her life. One night, before the cruise took off from Ft. Lauderdale, the couple went to dinner at a restaurant not far from their hotel. Yolina says her husband drank at the meal, over which they also started to get into an argument about a professional relationship he was having with a former lover. Their bickering escalated during the drive home, and soon they were lost, which added fuel to the fight.
Yolina says her husband eventually reached out and grabbed her arm, hard, to try and calm her down. “I didn’t want to tolerate that,” Yolina says, “so I scratched his arm.”
From there, things devolved even more, and the couple ended up pulling over, totally disoriented, and engaging in a full-on shouting match in a parking lot. The police came, saw the scratch marks on Yolina’s husband’s arm, and arrested her for domestic battery. Yolina says her husband pleaded with the police to try and stop them, to no avail.
A couple months after getting back from Florida, Yolina says she pleaded no contest to her misdemeanor charges and paid a $2,500 fine. She and her husband are still married and she’s getting some part-time teaching jobs again. For the most part, things are getting back to normal—everything but that damn mug shot, that is. Several websites have now acquired Yolina’s smirking, bleary-eyed mug shot, which is free, easy to do, and legal in Florida. It runs alongside links to her Twitter profile, her Facebook page, even her California address and a picture of her home.
She’s begged a few sites to remove it and they’ve complied free of charge, but others have demanded hundreds of dollars to take it down. Yolina can’t afford to pay them all, and even if she could, there’s no guarantee another site wouldn’t post her picture again. What hurts most is that she believes the mug shot has severely hurt her chances of finding another full-time job. She’s been seeking employment for months.
“I’m a 53-year-old teacher,” Yolina tells me, “I’m a good person. But this makes me feel very embarrassed and angry.”
The early 21st century will be remembered by many images: Twitter avatars, Instagram pictures, and gifs are a few that quickly come to mind. But the mug shot is fast becoming one of the most relevant graphics of modern culture. Thanks to lenient public-records laws, a vengeful justice system, people’s innate desire to laugh at others’ misfortunes, and, most importantly, the internet, the nearly 200-year-old mug shot is having a major renaissance. And what that renaissance says about society is not good.
Like Yolina, Philip Cabibi made a stupid mistake. Back in 2007, after hanging out in a bar and watching college football with some friends, Cabibi, who was 27 at the time, got in his car drunk and started driving home. When the cops pulled him over, Cabibi’s blood alcohol level was nearly twice the legal limit, and he was arrested and booked in Palm Harbor, Florida. Also like Yolina, Cabibi ultimately pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor and paid a fine, and he then lived for six months on probation. Four years later, during the kind of Google search we all do for ourselves from time to time, Cabibi found that on the first page of his results was his mug shot, which had been posted on the website florida.arrests.org.
Aghast, Cabibi hastily went searching for a way to get his picture off the site, which is how he came across “reputation management firm” RemoveSlander.com. RemoveSlander promised to get Cabibi’s mug shot taken down within an hour, and all for a fee of just $399. Cabibi paid them, and his mug shot was indeed gone almost right away. But then reality set in.
“I realized it’s just going to pop up on more sites, and more sites after that,” he tells me. “I’m just glad American Express refunded my money.”
Cabibi is now happy, living in the Salt Lake City area, and working in applications administration at Adobe. But as fine as his life is, he says he has to force himself to not remember that his mug shot is out there on several easily found websites for the whole world to see. That can be difficult for someone who uses the internet as often as he does. Cabibi says that, more than once, during discussions he’s been having on message boards, people who disagree with him have posted his mug shot to try and end the conversation. It’s become a sort of humiliating trump card people use to rub in his face, regardless of whether it pertains to the conversation at hand.
“I was an idiot,” Cabibi says, “but does that warrant having my stupid, drunken picture immortalized for everyone to look at? I don’t think so.”
Cabibi was the main case for a Wired story from late last year that detailed the cottage industry growing around mug shot websites. Mug shots have become easy for private citizens to obtain in states like Florida, Arizona, Texas, and others thanks to wide-open public-records laws. Animated by the desire to be transparent, police and sheriff’s departments dump all their mug shots and the accompanying booking details into searchable databases. It’s from those databases that enterprising citizens can use screen-scraping programs to expeditiously snag every new and old mug shot from a department’s system, and then post them to their own sites. Even people who are never prosecuted or are proven innocent go into these databases. The result is an internet lousy with mug shot purveyors, from mugshots.com to mugshotsusa.com to bustedmugshots.com. In 2011, florida.arrests.org, where Cabibi found his picture, had more than 4 million mug shots in its collection, and it adds about 1,500 more each day.
A lot of these websites make money from ad revenue alone via Google AdSense banners, but, as Wired uncovered, some of the sites also work in cahoots with mug shot-removal services to boost profits. Florida.arrests.org, for instance, has given the people behind RemoveSlander.com a URL through which they can click a button and make a PayPal payment of $19.90. That nominal fee, which florida.arrests.org keeps for itself, disappears the mug shot from the site and eliminates it from Google’s index, and RemoveSlander.com keeps the remainder of its $399 fee. To take down mug shots from three websites, RemoveSlander charges $699, and for six websites the price is $1,299. It’s not a difficult process, but you wouldn’t be able to tell it from those prices. The RemoveSlander website makes its work sound like the work requires top lawyers. Still, their catchphrase is effective: “Bail out of Google.”
Unfortunately, it’s not just the straightforward moneymaking sites cashing in on the mug shot craze. Countless other mainstream organizations, from sheriff’s departments to newspapers, have created outlets for average citizens to come and poke fun at their arrested peers. Arizona’s Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, domain of the controversial Sheriff Joe Arpaio, posts all of its booking photos, and allows people to vote on a “Mugshot of the Day.” The Tumblr blog Hot & Busted highlights the handsomest mug shots its readers can find—square jaws and boyish grins are juxtaposed with the men’s charges. And then there’s the proliferation of news sites that publish mug shot galleries: the Chicago Tribune does it, as does the Washington Post (though at least D.C. police won’t release mug shots until after a criminal is convicted). But the most consistent mug shot newspaper gallery belongs to alt weekly the Miami New Times.
The Miami New Times‘ website produces Mugshots Friday, a weekly rundown of the strangest booking photos taken that week accompanied by captions that generally focus on the subject’s appearance (sample quote: “This guy though—he just rubs us the wrong way”). The series started in 2010, when a New Times staffer, Gus Garcia-Roberts, came across and posted to the paper’s blog a mug shot of a man who was missing a significant portion of his skull. Garcia-Roberts called him the “half-head man,” and his photo produced “like a million hits,” estimates the New Times‘ editor in chief, Chuck Strouse. Strouse tells me that the success of “half-head man” led Garcia-Roberts to begin a weekly feature, which has continued even after he left the paper months ago.
But for all the web traffic it drives, Mugshots Friday is not without its critics. “There’s been some online sniping,” admits Strouse, “but is there anything out there that doesn’t get online sniping?” I ask Strouse if he thinks Mugshots Friday aligns well with what many believe the job of alt weeklies to be, which is protecting the little guy. “Look, have we gone over the line sometimes?” he says. “Maybe. But do I regret it and think we should stop it? No. Do I think we should patrol it carefully to not make fun of the wrong people? Probably.”
Strouse says that whatever happens with Mugshots Friday, he hopes readers realize that “in every circumstance, it’s done in good fun.”
Good intentions or not, for millions of people who have been arrested in certain counties in the United States, the online mug shot industry has become a real-life nightmare. To try and better understand these people’s plight, Danielle Dirks, assistant professor of sociology at Occidental College, is putting together a study based on interviews with men and women who have had their mug shots put on the internet. She calls the phenomenon “penal spectatorship.”
“This is the public stocks,” she says. “This is shaming.”
Dirks says what’s probably most scary about the rise of mug shot websites and mug shot photo galleries is that nowadays one single crime can follow a person forever—even if they don’t end up being charged or convicted of anything.
“This is part of punishment now,” she says. “Your punishment doesn’t end when you leave jail anymore. Now it will follow you forever and ever. It’s not going to go away, which is why you see people scrambling so hard to try and pay services to scrub their pictures from the mug shot websites.”
Though she’s only about halfway through with her study, Dirks says the people she’s researched thus far have generally had four things in common: they’ve been white, they’ve been well-educated, their crimes have been minor, and they’ve been terrified. “Every day these people live in fear,” she says. “They can’t walk past a couple coworkers laughing to one another without assuming someone Googled them and forwarded their mug shot to the whole office.” Others have reported worrying about applying to jobs and having a potential future employer discover their crimes. Not even love lives are safe: After one man finally got the guts to tell his girlfriend that he’d been arrested and his mug shot was now online, she summarily dumped him.
When it comes to mug shot mockery galleries, like Mugshot Fridays, Dirks believes the public’s fascination with thinking itself superior to criminals is at play. “It’s a way of reaffirming your values,” she says. “You say, ‘I’m not a criminal. I’m law abiding. I don’t do drugs or sell crack.'”
That sense of superiority has some ugly consequences. For proof of how callous people have become about online mug shots, one need only peruse the comment section on mugshots.com, which allows you to weigh in on strangers’ mug shots through your Facebook page. On one page, a pretty 22-year-old woman with meth-related scabs covering her face looks out dead-eyed from a mug shot taken in Oklahoma. One of the top comments, with 92 likes, reads, “Is sperm that corrosive over time?”
This kind of knee-jerk cruelty is typical of the cesspool that is an internet comment section. But Dirks warns that in a country that leads the world in incarceration per capita—where people are arrested and thrown in jail for the most minor of nonviolent offenses—you’d be a fool to think that this couldn’t happen to you one day. “You point and you laugh, but then you get a DUI and you can’t believe how awful this system is,” she says.
Changing the mug shot industry will be difficult, as it’s hard to drum up sympathy among Congress and voters for people caught committing crimes. But Dirks says one piece of legislation that might end this racket is to make mug shots copyrighted works that can’t be reproduced or monetized. Then states could keep a database for transparency purposes, but the pictures would no longer be as easily exploited by anyone with dreams of low-level extortion or a desire to humiliate a foe.
If any legislation does come to pass, it’s probably years away, meaning the mug shots that are already out there can be duplicated time and again for whatever purposes someone sees fit. In the meantime, Yolina has resigned herself to the fact that her mug shot is everywhere, and there’s nothing she can really do about it. “I know now that some sites will keep me up there forever, and so I have to let people decide for themselves,” she says. “I’m a good person, and if they want to find that out, they can ask me. If they don’t want to find that out because of the mug shot, well, what can I do?”
If you’ve got a mug shot online and would like to participate in Professor Dirks’ study, you can email her here.
Top image composed of a public domain mugshot from Georgia.