By Adam Tanner
NEW YORK, Sept 20 Janet LaBarba drank two
glasses of wine during dinner at an upscale Dallas restaurant
the night she broke up with her boyfriend. Later at a bar she
ordered a beer. At home, she found herself crying as she readied
for bed. She decided to go visit a friend.
Driving back long past midnight, she ignored blinking
traffic lights and cruised through a stop sign. She was hauled
down to the police station, charged with drunk driving, and
photographed. It was the second time in six months.
The two episodes in 2009 cost LaBarba more than $20,000 in
legal fees and fines and landed her in jail for a few days each
time. A judge ordered her to wear an ankle monitor for five
months. Yet the most stinging punishment, she felt, came when
several websites posted her arrest mug shots, so that Internet
searches of her name instantly turned up the compromising
"It completely screwed with my life," LaBarba said. "People
Googled me and it was very embarrassing." She said the images
complicated her search for a job as well as a new relationship
when her boyfriend's ex-wife looked up her name.
For a fee, she could have the photos removed. She chose to
Large data brokers have historically limited who gets to see
their detailed files on people through a complicated application
procedure that discourages casual users. Now, on the spur of the
moment, anybody can access digital secrets, including criminal
records, thanks to a proliferation of personal data Internet
sites. One subset of these sites features mug shots that can be
removed for a fee.
Many among America's 314 million people are affected. U.S.
law enforcement officials made more than 13 million arrests in
2010, according to the most recent FBI statistics, although that
number includes repeat arrests. The bureau maintains
fingerprints and criminal histories for 72 million people,
according to its Criminal Justice Information Services. Drug
abuse and drunk driving are the most common reasons for arrest.
Clare Dawson-Brown, assistant district attorney in Travis
County, Texas, home to bustedmugshots.com's founder Kyle Prall,
said she is concerned personal data sites sometimes list
incorrect information and do not comply with state orders to
erase certain cases from the criminal records. "Now that this
information is out there it is ever more horrific for people to
get their lives back together," she said. "How do you get this
garbage out of there?"
Several legal experts interviewed for this article said
seeking money to remove mug shots from the Internet does not
qualify as a crime such as extortion, since extortion requires a
threat ahead of time to post the image unless the mug shot
"Wow - it does seem to come pretty close to the line,"
Robert Weisberg, co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice
Center, said upon learning about such sites. "I'd say it skirts
the line but may stop just short. (It) depends on how a
reasonable person would perceive this in terms of fear."
WANTED: EVIDENCE OF CIVIC VALUE
LaBarba, 35, an event planner, rues the irresponsibility
that led to her drunk driving arrests and believes she has
learned important lessons. Yet she remains bitter about the
public posting of her mug shot. "How is this legal?" she asked.
"My business is my business. It's like me going to your house
and looking through your things."
Bustedmugshots.com responds that it only posts publicly
available images. "We are publishing public records with an
interest in informing the community," Prall said, speaking in a
series of interviews about his business. "We have never
approached anybody attempting to generate revenue from them to
remove a record from our database."
Bustedmugshots.com does not tell people they have posted the
images but waits for them to learn of it, either on their own or
LaBarba paid what the site describes as "nominal" fees - $68
per photo for service within 10 business days, $108 within 24
hours - to make the photos disappear. An Internet search of her
name now leads to genial photos of LaBarba pictured with lots of
Prall, 33, grew up in Bloomington, a small city in central
Illinois, the son of a circuit court judge. He set up the site a
year and a half ago.
In 2008, inspired by a Florida publication, he started a
weekly newspaper called Busted! In Austin during his spare time.
Promoting his $1 paper with the slogan "Getting arrested isn't
funny... but the mug shots are," Prall expanded to
bustedmugshots.com, continuing with his day job as a financial
analyst at a power company until earlier this year.
His website collects its images from city, state and federal
law enforcement agencies across the country, either for free or
for a small fee. It has assembled more than 5 million records,
he says. The company waives the fee for removing photos of those
exonerated of any charges.
On the website, bustedmugshots.com describes itself as "a
valuable asset to local law enforcement. Our dedication to
providing criminal justice has led to breakthroughs in cold
cases, and numerous tips on robberies, sex crimes and even
murders." Asked for specific examples, Prall offered none. He
said he plans to revamp the site to include a crime map and the
ability for users to submit tips to the police.
Some local jurisdictions have resisted making mug shots
available to him, although others say state public record laws
oblige them to provide the images. Andrew Kossack, Indiana's
former public access counselor, last year cleared the way for
Prall to obtain mug shots, but he has reservations about the
business: "It doesn't sit right in your stomach that this person
should be someone who has so much control over your likeness."
Others complain about the drain on resources. "It takes time
to distill the records," said Andrea Brandes Newsom, chief
deputy corporation counsel for the city of Indianapolis. "Is it
appropriate to make use of taxpayer resources in order for
someone to profit?"
The U.S. Department of Justice maintains a national sex
offender database, and many cities and counties offer free
searches of criminal records, while some post mug shots. Because
such records are not optimized for maximum Internet visibility,
they typically do not turn up in average searches.
One of the most common crimes catalogued on Prall's site is
drunk driving, but the advocacy group Mothers Against Drunk
Driving sees little merit in public shaming. "We haven't seen
evidence that tactics such as posting offenders' mug shots
online leads to the reduction of drunk driving incidents or
fatalities," said national president Jan Withers.
Prall says his site is a leader in a sector where
competitors include mugshots.com, whosarrested.com, and
gotchamugshot.com. "IS THIS YOU? Or your friend/family member?
Click Here To Remove," Mugshotsworld.com tells users.
"Originally $175. Discounted price of $100 available only for
The sites seek to get photos prominently displayed in web
searches. GotchaMugshot.com, for example, says on its site:
"It's a common occurrence to find full names, profile, mug shot
and offenses in the first page of most search engines like
Google, Bing & Yahoo."
Officials at these other mug shot sites did not respond to
calls and emails seeking comment.
'CREEPY VIGILANTE JUSTICE'
Prall has had his own run-ins with the law. As a young man
he was found guilty of illegal consumption of alcohol as a
minor, delivering/manufacturing of cannabis, trespassing into a
car and drunk driving. A court sentenced him to 120 days in jail
for the drug charge and 30 days for the drunk driving offense.
"I made a lot of little mistakes when I was young," Prall
said. "I did some things in high school that were bad choices."
Prall does not make his own mug shots available on his
website but said he would be comfortable publicizing his past.
"I don't think all that stuff should be secret," he said.
Joelle Bem, who was arrested for crashing a friend's Ferrari
while drunk in 2008, disagrees. She did not pay the roughly $400
bustedmugshots.com wanted to remove a series of images, saying
she did not have the money. A Google image search of her name
still quickly reveals several unflattering photos.
The divorced unemployed woman said the easy availability of
the photos prompted her to move after a neighbor circulated the
image to others after a disagreement. The images have also
complicated the personal life of the former currency trader and
financial analyst: "It's made dating really hard."
"I thought I was punished enough by Dallas County," said
Bem, 38, who served 30 days in prison. "I didn't know I was
going to be further punished and cyberstalked by creepy
vigilante justice whose only intent is to collect money from
(Adam Tanner is a 2012-13 fellow at Harvard University's
Department of Government)
(Editing by Claudia Parsons and Prudence Crowther)
Keywords: USA INTERNET/MUGSHOTS
(C) Reuters 2012. All rights reserved. Republication or redistribution of
Reuters content, including by caching, framing, or similar means, is
expressly prohibited without the prior written consent of Reuters. Reuters
and the Reuters sphere logo are registered trademarks and trademarks of
the Reuters group of companies around the world.