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Weighing access and fairness, Hillsborough Sheriff's Office limits online jail records

Times (2008) A suspect is photographed while being booked at the Hillsborough jail on Orient Road. Booking records will be available online now for only 90 days after an inmate leaves the jail.
Published Nov. 4, 2018

TAMPA — Until last week, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office online booking log served as a historical record of arrests and mug shots dating back more than two decades.

From a murder suspect later judged guilty to a college student whose misdemeanor pot charge was dropped, arrest information and photos of everyone booked into the county jail since the mid 1990s have been accessible with the stroke of a few keys.

That changed Monday when the agency amended its policy so that online booking information will be available only for 90 days after an inmate leaves the jail.

Limiting the time the information is available online is "based on fairness," Sheriff Chad Chronister said.

"I was concerned about the everlasting booking photos and the discriminatory implications that come along with it," Chronister said.

Experts say the change highlights the ongoing tension between two priorities: providing easy access to public records and protecting information that can linger on the internet for years.

"I think one of the things that is starting to bother sheriffs across the country is the notion that people are making money off of public records that are being commodified and monetized," said Sarah Lageson, a sociologist and assistant professor at Rutgers University-Newark School of Criminal Justice who studies the growth of online crime data.

"The public records laws are supposed to work in the public interest, not as an online shaming machine."

But throttling back online access to arrest records is a move in the wrong direction, said Barbara Petersen, president of Florida's First Amendment Foundation. Most requests for this information come from private citizens and business interests, followed by the news media, Petersen said.

Online jail records are an important resource for people seeking background information.

"You're hiring, you're firing, you want to check on your daughter's new boyfriend or who's picking up your children from school," Petersen said.

Chronister came to the decision after speaking with community groups including the NAACP. The goal, he said, was to "strike a balance between the immediate need to determine who is currently in our jail and the need to protect an individual's dignity."

Chronister first directed his agency to list on the online database only inmates in sheriff's custody. When that policy took effect Monday, he got complaints from attorneys and bail bondsmen. He decided the 90-day provision was a good compromise.

The Sheriff's Office noted that all historical booking information, including mug shots, are still available through public records requests. The agency recently created an online portal for requests. Requests can also be made by phone or in person at the sheriff's records center in Ybor City, but that process typically takes several days.

State law does not require agencies to put booking records online, and policies vary widely by county.

Miami-Dade and Broward counties allow the public to search for inmates by name only. On the opposite end of the spectrum are Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties, which maintain the policy Hillsborough just changed.

There is a caveat in Pinellas: Only authorized users, such as bail bondsmen, process servers and the news media, have access to online mug shots. Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri put that policy in effect in 2014 as a way to thwart websites that were scraping the photos and requiring payment to remove the information.

The Tampa Bay Times posts mug shots of local arrestees on its website but does not accept payment for removing them. The information is automatically removed 60 days after booking.

A Florida law that went into effect July 1 bars websites from demanding a fee in exchange for removing mug shots, but policy experts and even one of the law's sponsors have said it will be hard to enforce because many companies that post arrest photos online are based outside the state or country.

Gualtieri and Hernando Sheriff Al Nienhuis declined to comment for this story. In a statement, Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco noted that people who document that their cases were sealed or expunged can have their jail record removed from a law enforcement website. It's required under Florida law.

Petersen said booking logs are an important part of a case, even those that are dropped. Other online records are available to show how a case was resolved.

"I understand they're trying to protect people who were erroneously pulled into the system, but the records speak for themselves," she said.

Booking logs often are the only records that searchers such as landlords and employers see, Lageson said.

"They're used to evaluate someone's character and morality, and to discriminate," she said.

She has interviewed hundreds of people who have stopped online dating or trying to enter the workforce because of an online arrest record. People of color make up a disproportionately high number of arrests, so discrimination they're experiencing in other areas of their lives is compounded, she said.

"There's a cascade of harms that happen, so I think there's definitely some benefit to tightening access options."

Contact Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.

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