Ohio Legislature Seeks to Stop Extortion Mugshot Websites

On March 15, 2017, the Ohio House passed House Bill 6 (by a vote of 88-4) which is intended to prohibit private mugshot or criminal record websites that require the payment of a fee from an individual in order to have his/her mugshot or criminal records from the site. On March 16, 2017, the Bill was introduced to the Ohio Senate for its consideration. Horwitz & Horwitz, LLC applauds the efforts of the Ohio Legislature in protecting the rights of Ohio citizens.

For those of you who are not familiar with these “mugshot extortion websites”, here is how they work. A person gets arrested. He is booked into the jail. As part of the booking process, a mugshot is taken. The mugshot is placed on the jail’s website (https://miamivalleyjails.org). Charges are filed in the court. The charges and resulting case appear on the particular court’s website, which is accessible to the public. Because the mugshot and criminal case records are public records, there is nothing wrong or illegal in the government entities posting that information on their official sites. It is also not illegal for private entities to post this information on their websites.

You may be asking yourself, if these are public records, what is the problem here – public records ARE public records, correct? The problem with these “mugshot extortion websites” is that they charge a fee (often a very large fee) to have the records removed. The websites are not in business to inform the public of arrests and criminal cases – there is no money to be made by this. Rather, the websites are created to exact a fee for the removal a person’s records from the site.

The real problem arises, after a person gets his record expunged (aka sealing of the record). Most people charged with crimes are not repeat offenders. They are people who make a one-time mistake, learn from it, and are never involved with the criminal justice system again for the rest of their lives. Other individuals are charged with crimes and are found not guilty at trial or are able to obtain a dismissal of the charges. These individuals may also seek to have their records expunged, so that there is no record of them being charged in the first place. Ohio’s expungement laws recognize this, and are designed to give the person a deserved “fresh start”, without the stigma of a criminal conviction. After an expungement is granted, the Court orders all law enforcement and government entities to remove the records from its files (and websites) and the court file is placed in a sealed records area of the courthouse. The offense is “considered not to have occurred”.

The most important benefit of having one’s record expunged is in when a person is seeking employment. Nowadays, it is a routine practice for prospective employers to “Google search” all applicants being considered. Is the person really getting a fresh start, even though all official government records are removed, the same records remain on for-profit private websites seeking a large amount of money for removal? Fortunately, our Ohio Legislature agrees that it is not a fair practice.

I can’t tell you how many people I have spoken to who have continued to be denied employment months and years after their records have been expunged. Sometimes, out of desperation, a person may pay a “king’s ransom” to a website to have his record removed. Then, sure enough, the same record mysteriously appears on another such website, also wanting a fee for removal. In some cases, the records appear on numerous “mugshot extortion websites”, which make paying the ransoms impossible or cost prohibitive. If you take the profit away from these entities, they will no longer have an incentive to exist and go away.

Fortunately, our Ohio Legislature is going one step further and seeking to criminalize this practice. Under House Bill 6, a new Ohio Revised Code section – Section 2927.22, would be created, which reads as follows:

(B) No person engaged in publishing or otherwise disseminating criminal record information through a print or electronic medium shall negligently solicit or accept from a subject individual the payment of a fee or other consideration to remove, correct, modify, or refrain from publishing or otherwise disseminating criminal record information.

(C) A violation of division (B) of this section is misuse of criminal record information, a misdemeanor of the first degree.

Even better, there is a civil damages section, which states:

(E) In a civil action brought pursuant to section 2307.60 of the Revised Code for a violation of this section, a subject individual who suffers a loss or harm as a result of the violation may be awarded an amount equal to ten thousand dollars or actual and punitive damages, whichever is greater, and in addition may be awarded reasonable attorney’s fees, court costs, and any other remedies provided by law. Humiliation or embarrassment shall be adequate to show that the plaintiff has incurred damages. No physical manifestation of either humiliation or embarrassment is necessary for damages to be shown.

Wow. I think my eyes are starting to tear up. If this passes the Ohio Senate, this Bill should effectively end this horrendous practice. People harmed by these practices (after the effective date of the law, if enacted) will not only have the satisfaction of those individuals being prosecuted, but will also have a generous civil damages section to compensate them.

If you or someone you know is being prosecuted for a criminal offense or having problems with a “mugshot extortion website” following an expungement of a criminal case contact Criminal Defense Attorney Jonathan Horwitz at Horwitz & Horwitz, LLC, located in Centerville, Ohio.

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