Websites that carry arrest booking photos would be banned from accepting money to remove them in Illinois under proposed legislation headed to Gov. Pat Quinn.
Lawmakers say the measure aims to demonetize what they see as an "offensive" business model that was the subject of a Daily Herald investigation in March.
"To me, it's offensive when someone twists one of our most cherished constitutional protections -- free speech -- and exploits it for profit," said state Rep. Robert Marwick, a Chicago Democrat, who co-sponsored the bill. "Will these sites go away? No, but maybe if we do this and other states follow, there would be no moneymaking option for them."
The legislation targets at least a half-dozen websites that post Illinois mug shots obtained as public records, then allow users to have them scrubbed from the World Wide Web at a cost -- more than $300 in some cases.
State Sen. John Mulroe, another Chicago Democrat, said he introduced the bill after recently becoming aware of the phenomenon. The sites seem to be preying on "hardworking, middle-class people trying to get a job," he said.
"It's all money driven -- but if they're not getting paid, I think they're not going to do it," Mulroe said.
The proposal received unanimous support from both houses in May and would put legal enforcement under the purview of the Illinois attorney general's office.
Websites and other media outlets that solicit or accept money to remove criminal arrest information could be dissolved, suspended or face fines up to $50,000, among other civil sanctions.
State Rep. Dennis Reboletti, an Addison Republican, said the bill aims to strike a "reasonable" balance between the right to public information and its appropriate uses.
"There's no doubt it (arrest information) should be available to the public but, at the end of the day, people profiting from it and how they profit off it is what's the problem," he said. "They're using that information to almost extort money from people who've been arrested."
Quinn spokesman Dave Blanchette said the governor's office is "neutral on the bill, but we have heard no concerns about it. It passed unanimously."
The change would be welcome news to Wheaton defense attorney Don Ramsell, who has had clients who paid to remove their arrest photos, even if they were exonerated.
He said the bill protects free speech rights for website operators, but "denies them the opportunity to capitalize" on it through everyday citizens.
"I don't see this as a complete answer, but it's a good start," he said. "An extortionist would go out of business if he wasn't allowed to receive money."
The move comes as states such as Georgia and Florida have taken steps toward curbing the trend through legislation.
Arthur D'Antonio III, whose California-based website carries Illinois arrest photos, said he supports laws that put priority on removing information about people who avoid a conviction. In those cases, his site already takes down photos for free.
But D'Antonio, who views his business as a public service, argued it costs time and money to take down content -- so the proposed Illinois law "leaves our hands tied."
"We either have to stop providing service to the citizens of Illinois entirely ... or we have to not be monetizing it whatsoever," he said. "With removals, we just don't have the manpower to keep doing it (with less income)."
But that's the point, said Lawrence Schlam, a veteran attorney and professor of constitutional law at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb.
"I think this puts a large dent in the mug shot removal business," he said.
Mug shot: Goal is 'no moneymaking option' for these sites. lawmaker says