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updated: 3/17/2013 3:51 PM

New industry: Charging to remove cop mug shots from websites

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  • Video: Kane Co Lt. on Mugshots

  • Video: Lawyer decries mug shot sites

  • Video: Mugshots report on ABC7

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  • A website posts police booking pictures and then charges people to have them removed -- at different rates based on how quickly they'd like the picture to come down. We've blurred out the picture and the website's URL.

      A website posts police booking pictures and then charges people to have them removed -- at different rates based on how quickly they'd like the picture to come down. We've blurred out the picture and the website's URL.

  • Wheaton attorney Don Ramsell says a client pleaded guilty to save legal costs and time only to learn his arrest photo would remain on a website until he paid $50 to $100 for its removal.

       Wheaton attorney Don Ramsell says a client pleaded guilty to save legal costs and time only to learn his arrest photo would remain on a website until he paid $50 to $100 for its removal.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer

 

Arthur D'Antonio III is quick to admit he's "not the most proud" of what he does to make a buck.

"At the same time, it is pretty legitimate," the 25-year-old CEO of an online business that -- for $174.99 -- will instantly remove your arrest photo from his website.

Fork over $306.99, and he'll ask Google to yank it from its search results, too.

The site accepts three major credit cards, plus PayPal.

And, no, D'Antonio doesn't lose sleep over it.

"I'd be the first one to be happy if the laws were changed to make it explicitly illegal," he said. "But for the time being -- as long as it is legal -- it's tough not to want to apply my skill set to this."

There's a chance your mug shot is already online if you were booked into the Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake or McHenry County jail in the last couple of years -- even if your arrest didn't make the daily news.

D'Antonio's company is among at least a half-dozen websites now carrying suburban booking photos on a pay-to-remove basis. They rely heavily on access to public records, including arrest reports and mug shots available on government websites.

Critics complain the trending trending business model borders on extortion -- but it's not so clear-cut, say legal experts, who see no legal wrongdoing if the photos and information are lawfully obtained.

"My instinct tells me this was very carefully thought out by some smart lawyers," said Lawrence Schlam, a professor of constitutional law at Northern Illinois University in Dekalb.

'Blood money'

Wheaton defense attorney Sal Miglore started hearing from his clients more than a year ago.

Before long, he had about a dozen complaints.

Some had been found not guilty; others had their charges dismissed or expunged.

But their arrests lived on via the Internet.

To no avail, Miglore said, he tried reaching out to numerous mug shot websites.

"They basically said 'Sue us,'" he recalled. "Eventually, just about every one of my clients paid the blood money. I think it's extortion -- and that's the way the clients view it."

D'Antonio's site, which boasts "upward of 5 or 6 million" searchable images from across the nation, is relatively tame next to some of the spicier offerings making waves around suburban courthouses.

Two sites in particular -- referencing Cook and DuPage counties -- have sparked ire for facilitating salacious online commentary and categorizing featured arrestees as "murderers," "abusive parents," "wife beaters" and "drug dealers," among other terms, even if the charges haven't been proven in court.

Those wrongly labeled who can demonstrate they were harmed as a result have the best shot at winning a defamation claim, Schlam said -- but it can be a lengthy, expensive battle.

"It's (also) a violation of due process to give somebody the reputation of a murderer without them being convicted of murder," he said. "The trickery here is who do you sue and what intent did they have? I'd say pay it (the removal price). It's only a fraction of what my hourly fee would be."

In most cases, and as long as there's documentation, D'Antonio's website removes photos at no charge if a person avoids a conviction or dies.

The Cook and DuPage websites, on the other hand, scrub content only for money.

One of them states online that it "strongly believes in freedom of speech and nothing will ever be censored on our service for any reason. If you don't like freedom of speech, we encourage you to either contact lawmakers and voice your opinion or move to a communist state."

'Changing frontier'

"They've kind of stolen the business of expungements from the government," said Don Ramsell, another Wheaton defense attorney.

Ramsell said one of his clients believed he would be acquitted at trial of resisting arrest but pleaded guilty to a reduced charge because it saved legal costs and time -- and gave him the opportunity for a clean record after a period of good behavior.

The client soon learned his arrest photo would float on in cyber space until he coughed up $50 to $100 for one of three removal packages at the DuPage site, which offers "standard, expedited and platinum" services, depending on how quickly the photo needs to come down.

"If a website is going to portray it just like he was guilty, that certainly might change the frontier of the criminal justice system," Ramsell said.

Local police agencies say there's little they can do when they're asked for booking photos, which by law must be made publicly available in most circumstances.

The McHenry County sheriff's office received regular requests from websites in and out of state but now puts its arrest photos online, according to Cmdr. Duane Cedergren.

"Once we release a public record, we have no control over what somebody does with it," he said, adding the office does not support mug shot removal sites "in any way, shape or form."

In Kane County, Sheriff's Lt. Pat Gengler has also filled requests for all mug shots taken over various periods of time, as well as booking information, such as dates of birth and addresses.

The same information is available on the sheriff's website, which includes sections for people booked or released in the prior 24 hours.

"It's getting more prevalent," Gengler said of mug shot sites. "We really don't have an opinion on it. They ask for the information under the Freedom of Information Act, and we reply to that just like we would any other FOIA."

But not all cops are playing along.

"A number of mug shot selling companies have attempted to request mug shots for everyone in the Cook County jail," which houses more than 10,000 inmates, spokesman Frank Bilecki said. "We have never complied with these requests."

Bilecki said the jail's website posts photos of inmates "for safety and identification purposes" but only while the person is in custody.

"The only way for anyone to access those photos is by entering the detainee's name for a search," he said, though the agency still provides individual booking photos on request to the local news media.

The DuPage County sheriff's office did not respond to requests for comment.

'Largely spite'

Ironically, D'Antonio didn't see dollars in mug shots until his buddy's photo ended up on another site.

It was frustrating to see his friend pay to save face, the web designer said, but it also led to a realization.

"I thought, 'I could build this in 80 hours. It was largely spite, but it was also a little bit of wanting to play with some new technologies and wanting to have a side project," D'Antonio said. "I was pretty sure it wasn't a legal thing to be doing. The more I read into it, the more it made sense."

Based in Orange County, Calif., D'Antonio's company has five full-time employees. The bulk of its revenue comes from removal services, D'Antonio said. He wouldn't disclose how much traffic the site gets, but said it "just kept coming up, coming up" after launching about a year ago.

D'Antonio said he occasionally breaks his own rules -- taking down a photo for free here and there if it's related to a minor arrest and costing someone a job.

Sometimes, he said, he refuses business from convicted child and domestic abusers, or parents delinquent in child support because it would be a "disservice to the public."

Most of his customers are paying to remove alcohol- and drug-related arrests, D'Antonio said. He wouldn't talk numbers.

"We absolutely aren't out to destroy people's lives," he said. "Our goal is to find a middle ground where we can be a service to the public without being a huge detraction for people out there looking for a job and things like that."

For D'Antonio, an entrepreneur of web startup companies, public information offers a vast frontier for online commerce.

Lately, he's been investigating potential uses for license plate data collected by electronic readers on police patrol cars and bridges in some states.

If that information is public, he said, users could pinpoint a vehicle at a particular place and time, which could be valuable and have many different applications.

"I bet there are companies that would be interested to see if any cars are driving by trying to hack into their Internet," D'Antonio said.

D'Antonio declined to share a photo of himself for this story, "primarily for reasons of safety for both myself and for the safety of my friends and family."

Asked if he had a criminal record, he said he was arrested at age 20 for an alcohol-related offense in a "county that at the time didn't have any robust reporting."

He wouldn't give further specifics but said he's confident his mug shot would be tough to track down.

"I haven't had to pay for removal or anything," he said. "Knock on wood."

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