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Lawsuit targets mug shot websites that keep arrests alive

Her cheeks flushed and her green eyes glazed, Shannon Bilotta stood before a camera inside the Pinellas County Jail to have her photo taken.

The mug shot documented the night of June 3, when Bilotta, 44, was arrested on a domestic battery charge, accused of striking a boyfriend in Largo.

The following month, the charge was dropped and Bilotta completed an eight-hour anger management program, according to court records.

Even though the charge was dropped, traces of Bilotta's only arrest remain online on an array of privately run mug shot websites.

"In this country, you're innocent until proven guilty," said Kenneth Turkel, Bilotta's attorney. "The mug shot is an appearance of criminal activity that may not be true."

Bilotta is now the plaintiff in a lawsuit her attorneys filed in late August against roughly a dozen mug shot websites that published her name, mug shot and arrest information online. Her attorneys hope the case will gain class- action status to represent all Florida residents affected by the mug shot publishing industry.

Bilotta declined to be interviewed by the Tampa Bay Times, but in a complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, her attorneys argue the websites violate a state statute that prohibits the use of a person's "name and likeness" without their consent for any "commercial or advertising purpose."

"This is just profiting off of other people's humiliation," said Matthew Crist, another attorney involved in the case.

Website operators use automated software, known as "web crawlers," to scrape data from websites, including the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office arrest inquiry, where Bilotta's mug shot was originally posted. Then they display the same details on their own Web pages, according to the complaint.

A recent Google search of Bilotta's name brought up arrests.org, one of the websites mentioned in the complaint. The Web page shows Bilotta's mug shot, along with details of her arrest.

Bilotta's attorneys argue the websites use arrest information to drive traffic to their sites, which often display advertisements promoting other products — including "unpublishing" services, which remove mug shots from the websites, often for a fee.

Some websites, such as mug shots.com, advertise removal packages ranging from $399 for removal of one arrest to up to $1,799 for five. Whosarrested.com was recently charging $99 for one removal within an hour.

Other websites offer to remove mug shots for free if the arrestee shows documentation proving the charges were dropped.

Turkel said charging people who want their arrests deleted from the Web is "problematic."

"Because there are so many mug shot website operators, you may have to pay this fee a number of times to remove this mug shot from the Internet," he said.

The Tampa Bay Times has a mug shot website of its own, but operates differently from independent operators, whose Web pages remain on the Internet. Mug shots on the Times site are purged after 60 days and the Web pages don't surface in Google searches.

Gregg Leslie, legal defense director of the Virginia-based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said mug shots should remain public, but added there are some websites, or "bad actors," who abuse that right in order to make a profit.

"The appropriate remedy is to stop them from doing that," Leslie said, "rather than to deny everyone access to mug shots."

Google recently changed its search algorithms to decrease the number of mug shot websites that appear prominently during a search, according to the New York Times. Google officials did not returns calls or emails from the Tampa Bay Times.

Attorneys and operators of some of the websites named in the lawsuit, including JustMugshots.com and Arrests.org, also did not return phone calls or emails requesting comment.

Lance Winchester, an Austin-based attorney representing BustedMugshots.com and Mugshots Online.com, said mug shot publication is "protected free speech," adding that both websites recently decided to stop charging a fee for mug shot removals. But mug shots, Winchester said, are evidence a person was arrested, even if the charge was later dropped.

"It's called personal responsibility," Winchester said. "Remember, the mug shots are true. They are not false. They are not lying. They are not in any way misleading."

News researchers Natalie A. Watson and Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Contact Laura C. Morel at lmorel@tampabay.com or (727)445-4157.

Lawsuit targets mug shot websites that keep arrests alive 11/10/13 [Last modified: Sunday, November 10, 2013 8:35pm]
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