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Sheriff pulls mug shots offline to stop 'extortion' websites

Published: Thursday, Jan. 10 2013 1:42 p.m. MST

SOUTH SALT LAKE — Using words such as "bullies," "extortionists" and "trash," Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder on Thursday blasted tabloid magazines and websites that post mug shots from his jail and then demand money for the pictures to be removed.

"In my opinion, what we're seeing today is nothing short of extortion in our county," Winder said. "This practice must be stopped."

Because of the recent booming practice of some private companies publishing all mug shots in a single publication, Winder announced that as of Thursday, mug shots will no longer be available on the Salt Lake County Jail website.

The county, he said, had become an unwilling accomplice to these publications because of its long-standing practice to post mug shots online where they could be accessed by the public. One company alone had downloaded 520,000 mug shots from his Salt Lake County Jail, Winder said, and about 2,700 from the Davis County Jail.

He showed an example of one company that charged citizens $400 to have a single mug shot removed from their website, and nearly $1,500 for four mug shots to be taken offline.

The problem, Winder said, is that once those mug shots are on the Internet, they never really disappear. While someone may pay money to have their picture removed from one website, it very easily could show up on another.

Another issue, he said, is that many of the people who have their pictures taken are never actually booked into jail. Some are "booked and released," meaning they are allowed to leave after their mug shot is taken. And some are never charged or are later found innocent of the crime they were accused of committing. Furthermore, Winder said some people have mug shots taken for relatively minor offenses. But to the public, "A mug shot means criminal," he said.

"Yes, innocent people's photographs are being put up there," he said. "Individuals whose only offense was being arrested, and subsequently the charges were dropped."

Many members of the public, he said, have loudly complained to the sheriff's office believing the jail was the one willingly giving mug shots to publications like mugshots.com.

Just this week, Winder said a couple who were originally arrested in a domestic violence case came to the jail records department to complain. The charges involving the couple were eventually dropped and they went through counseling to improve their marriage. But the first thing that pops up when they Google their names are the mug shots, Winder said. The couple said that was hurting their efforts to move on.

In another case, a man was arrested for disorderly conduct in 2000, Winder said. It turned out to be the man's only offense and he went on to law school and eventually became a lawyer. However, when his name is searched on the Internet, his mug shot still pops up.

Even worse, Winder said, are the publications that place crowns onto the heads of people arrested or publish issues with the "hottest chicks" or "most ridiculous" mug shots — something he called "trash."

Winder said the jail will still work with the media, which commonly use mug shots and booking reports, and other members of the public who show up in person and need a mug. He said he was sorry for the new hurdles that have been created but said, "I'm not sorry it will make it a little more difficult for these bullies to torment our citizens."

The idea of having mug shots end up in tabloids or on Facebook and to have people "drug through the mud for rest of their lives" was something that was never on the radar when mug shots were first posted online, he said. But Winder said he can't ignore the reality of social media today and he would like to discuss with lawmakers what the future of releasing information to the public looks like.

Winder said he would be seeking help from the Utah Legislature to stop the so-called extortionists, and would bring up the topic in two weeks when he travels to Washington, D.C., for meetings with the sheriff's association.

E-mail: preavy@desnews.com

Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam

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