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posted: 3/17/2013 5:00 AM

Scary new world: Have mug shot removed for a fee

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It can be a pretty scary world in which we live.

Evidence is found on today's Page 1, where Josh Stockinger chronicles a new enterprise that's raised the hackles of law enforcement and defense lawyers. Stockinger discovered at least a half-dozen websites that grab suburban police mug shots of people charged with the pettiest of offenses as well as major crimes. Whether they've been convicted is incidental; the point of the business is to take the mug shots down -- for a fee.

Some offer different levels of service. One website will take down a mug for $174.99; operators will ask Google to yank it from its search results.

Other websites ratchet up the fear and loathing, calling their featured arrestees "murderers," "abusive parents," "wife beaters" and "drug dealers." (In our story, we made a conscious decision not to name the websites. Not that people bent on finding them won't do so quickly; we just felt like we shouldn't be even a tacit enabler.)

Law officials and lawyers Stockinger talked to said despite their distaste for what these new entrepreneurs are doing, their hands are tied. Police with few exceptions are required to release names and mugs of arrestees. Publishing them breaks no laws, of course; newspapers have done this for decades in the police blotter and crime stories.

The mug shot websites do underscore a new challenge, though. We often write about the major ones and follow them through the court system, ensuring the record ultimately is set straight. It's the blotter-type crimes that can be trickiest. Back in the pre-Internet age, our lesser-crimes stories often would be reported and forgotten. But if we'd hear from someone months or years later saying they were found innocent or had charges downgraded, we'd do a follow-up story.

Today, though, virtually everything we publish lives on forever on the Internet. "Google" someone's name and there's a good chance you'll find out about a years-old arrest. And this is how some employers check up on prospective hires. So nowadays it is not uncommon for someone to approach us about an arrest story for which they've been exonerated. And, often, they'll ask us to take the original story off our website.

That would be a quick and easy fix, but we can't do it. If we start removing stories every time events change, we'd really be altering history. I'm reminded of the famous scene in "Absence of Malice" in which a woman runs from door to door grabbing the morning paper off front lawns to keep people from reading a distressing story about her.

So, we generally don't "unpublish" accurate stories, a policy used by The New York Times and The Washington Post. We will do the electronic version of that follow-up story in days of yore. If an arrestee can provide us with evidence, which we corroborate, that he or she was cleared of charges or the charges were downgraded/expunged, we'll update the original story. That doesn't always please the subject of the story, but what's the alternative?

In Florida, there is a proposed law intended to squelch the remove-your-photo-for-a-fee business. It would require any website operators, presumably including news media, to remove a person's name and photo within 15 days after receiving written notification of a nonconviction. Failure to comply would lead to a fine, and after 45 days "a presumption of defamation of character" is made. The bill also calls for these penalties regardless of whether the operators charge a fee for mug shot removal.

To lump everyone into the same trick bag -- the police mug shot purveyors and legitimate news gathering operations -- seems even scarier than the practice lawmakers are trying to thwart.

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