By Vince Horiuchi The Salt Lake Tribune
Last month, a bored Phillip Cabibi decided to perform a “vanity search” of himself on Google. The Internet search of his own name didn’t reveal much at first.
There was his LinkedIn account. And his Facebook page. Then his name on Meetup.com for a group of Italian Americans.
But then came the shock.
“At the very end is when I saw my mugshot,” said Cabibi, 31, an enterprise applications administrator from Draper. “I was pretty flabbergasted.”
He then learned he could get his booking photo removed from the site – for $399.
Cabibi found himself trapped in an emerging Internet niche that’s akin to the modern-day scarlet letter: websites that post jail mugshots of people in local towns. At least one site will charge you to take your photo off. Another has made a deal with a separate website that charges to remove them.
Four years ago, Cabibi was arrested about 20 miles west of Tampa, Fla., in Pinellas County for driving under the influence. He was coming home from a University of Florida-Florida State football game.
“I had a girl with me. I was sort of trying to impress her. I was speeding, and I was pulled over. I had a few beers,” he said. “I made a stupid decision.”
He was booked into the county jail, where his mugshot was taken. He later pleaded no contest, paid a $900 fine and was placed on probation for six months. He thought that would be the end of it.
But four years later, there was Cabibi’s mugshot staring back at him on Florida.Arrests.org, which is operated by Craig Robert Wiggens. It displays all jail mugshots of those arrested each day in Florida.
Florida.Arrests.org is one of many ad-supported websites that have cropped up in the past year that post jail mugshots of ordinary citizens nationwide. And several of them – like Mugshots.com, BustedMugshots.com, LookWhoGotBusted.com and SLCMugshots.com – list current mugshots of Utah arrests from jails in Salt Lake, Weber and Utah counties.
Some sites offer to remove the mugshots for a price. MugShotsList.com (which includes Utah jail photos) says it will delete a booking photo for a $12.95 “processing fee.” Until just recently, SLCMugshots.com charged a $49 “administrative cost” to take down a mugshot (it did away with the fee two weeks ago). And Florida.Arrests.org webmaster Wiggens gets paid whenever a mugshot is removed from his site in a different kind of deal.
A separate website called RemoveSlander.com says it will purge your arrest mug from Florida.Arrests.org for a $399 fee. The appearance is that these two sites are at odds – one site posts the mugs, another fights for you to take them down.
But in an interview with technology website Wired.com, Wiggens acknowledged he gave RemoveSlander.com a URL so it could automatically take a mugshot off his site. Each time RemoveSlander does, $9.95 is paid to Wiggens. Other sites such as HideMyMugshot.com and RemoveArrest.com say they too will delete booking photos specifically from Florida.Arrests.org.
When Cabibi saw his mugshot, he paid RemoveSlander.com the $399 fee to take it off.
“My original thought was I just wanted to get it [the mugshot] off,” he said about why he’s willing to talk about his jail booking even though he paid hundreds of dollars to hide it. “But then I found out how big of a scam this was. And it’s legal. It boggles my mind that it’s allowed to go on.”
Jail mugshots are considered public information and already are on display on many sheriff’s office websites around the country. The Ogden Standard-Examiner’s website also runs each day’s booking photos from the Weber County Jail. These mugshot sites simply run automated software that seek out those booking photos.
Salt Lake County Jail commander Rollin Cook said there’s nothing he or other jails can do about it.
“We’re aware that they’re out there. Unfortunately, there is nothing we can do,” he said. “It’s heartbreaking for us because our intent is not to humiliate but to provide information. But there are people who are doing it to extort or humiliate.”
Calls and emails to Wiggens and his Florida.Arrests.org, as well as Bustedmugshots.com, SLCMugshots.com and LookWhoGotBusted.com, were not returned after repeated attempts. Those who replied from Mugshots and a Facebook page devoted to Salt Lake County booking photos called Look Who’s Busted Salt Lake City refused to give their names or titles.
Operators say they created the sites for the sole purpose to alert citizens to arrests in their communities.
“I think that the people of Salt Lake should know what is going on around them and their children on a daily basis,” said the administrator of the Look Who’s Busted Facebook page. “The man standing next to you in 7-Eleven could have been arrested two days ago, for example, for vehicle burglary, and you would never even know it.”
An employee from Mugshots.com who did not want to be identified or reveal their position described their site as “a useful public service.”
“We post only true and factual information as originally published by local law enforcement agencies,” the person said in an email. “We make no judgment, we take no sides.”
Some sites will freely take down photos upon request if the person was wrongly arrested, the charges are dropped or the case leads to an acquittal. Mugshots.com and others, including the Standard-Examiner, by policy do not remove mugshots from their sites if the defendant has been found not guilty or their record has been expunged.
“That just completely takes presumption of innocence and turns it on its head,” said criminal defense attorney Steven Shapiro. “They [the falsely accused] really struggle to get their good name back when maybe they haven’t done anything wrong.”
Salt Lake City criminal defense attorney Ron Yengich also calls these sites “a form of extortion.” He also thinks they’re “despicable.”
“The public at large loves to see people degraded. We have become a very mean society and a society without mercy or one that doesn’t understand the presumption of innocence at all,” he said. “It does not add anything to the public debate about crime and how we deal with crime. It just gives the citizenry at large a way to make fun of people.”
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