What would you do if you were granted a second chance when a judge ruled that your record would be wiped clean, only to have a mug shot website take your photo and information and post them for the entire world to see, demanding payment for it to be removed, even though your record was supposed to be clean? Or what if you were arrested but never even convicted? That mug shot remains as evidence of your arrest which could make it nearly impossible to get a job or even find a place to live—unless you pay a fee to have it removed.
Mug shot websites suggest guilt by association
Or worse still, what if you had never been convicted of a crime or even arrested, and your personal information was published on one of these mug shot websites, implicating you of guilt by association because you are related to someone who was arrested for a crime? And the only way to take it off of these mug shot sites is to pay them money—as much as $500—to have it removed.
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This is the reality faced by tens of thousands of people every day in the U.S., but now some of them are fighting back.
Case against mug shot operators goes to court
A plaintiff in a lawsuit filed against an alleged notorious mug shot website operator earlier this year contacted ValueWalk after reading our story about how Google Inc (NASDAQ:GOOG) was taking action against mug shot sites. The search giant rolled out a new algorithm designed to push these sites to the second page of its search results. But what Google Inc (NASDAQ:GOOG) is doing is just a small part of what the plaintiffs in the suit are hoping will be done after their case is complete.
The plaintiff who contacted ValueWalk requested to remain anonymous, and the names of all 10 of the plaintiffs in the case have been removed from the official court documents obtained by ValueWalk. The court now refers to the plaintiffs as either John Doe or Jane Doe and then a number. There are eight men and two women who are plaintiffs in the case. The civil case alleges invasion of privacy and extortion.
An attorney representing several plaintiffs in the lawsuit tells ValueWalk that what operators of mug shot websites are doing amounts to online extortion.
Mug shot websites = online extortion
“We’re tenacious, and we believe certainly in what we’re doing and know that even though the lawsuit has 10 plaintiffs, we’re protecting the rights of tens of thousands of people,” attorney Janice Belluci told ValueWalk. “We believe what’s happening is extortion because when people put information on a website and demand payment to have removed, it sounds like extortion to us.”
Belluci says the ten plaintiffs are from five different states, and they’re all similar in that their names and other identifying information have been included on mug shot websites. However, she says some of these plaintiffs have been guilty of nothing more than simply being a relative of someone whose mug shot was published on these sites. One is the wife of someone whose record was wiped clean by law enforcement, while another is the mother of a registered sex offender.
Civil case filed against Charles Roderick
Belluci told ValueWalk that initially they filed the suit in federal court against six people they believed were connected with the operation of the family of mug shot websites which published the names and information of the plaintiffs. She said currently the only person left on the lawsuit is Charles Roderick, who is believed to be the owner and operator of a family of mug shot websites, which include SORArchives, Offendex and others.
The official complaint accuses Roderick of online extortion and racketeering through the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). It also challenges the publication of the plaintiffs’ names and photos on websites without their prior consent.
According to Belluci, they dismissed two of the original individuals named in the case, and the court dismissed the other three. She said the remaining defendant is especially interesting because he himself has been convicted of crimes in the past.
“Mr. Roderick himself is a felon, and I think it’s really interesting because one would think he would have more compassion for other people who have been convicted of a crime,” said Belluci “He’s not, so people ask me why in the world he would do something like this and it’s a very strong reason: money. It’s a business plan that charges $500 a person to have a name removed.”
Mug shot websites deny allegations
The websites named in this suit publicly deny the allegations brought in this case and others. They claim that they have the “legal right to disseminate this information” and that their “position has been validated by a number of U.S. Supreme Court Rulings.”
They also claim that allegations made by numerous people against their website, both in the media and in court, are false, even going so far as brand certain people “liars.” In doing research for this story, ValueWalk discovered pending lawsuits other than the one brought to our attention.
The mug shot sites named in this particular lawsuit say they are providing a service to the community in publishing mug shots and information about criminals. However, what they don’t point out is that people who are truly dangerous could just pay the fee to have their mug shots and information removed. And if they really are dangerous, they have little to lose by paying the money.
Mug shot websites could rake in millions
Belluci estimates that Roderick has potential revenues of $350 million by running his websites. She says there are about 750,000 people in the nation who are currently on some kind of criminal registry, and she says there are others whose names are taken off the registry. According to Belluci, if Roderick decides to keep people whose names have been removed from criminal registries, there’s an even greater potential for him to earn money.
She also said this case goes far beyond the websites Roderick is accused of using to extort money from former offenders and their families. She said this is a problem that will likely get worse if something isn’t done to stop it.
“We invite your readers to think about it,” Belluci said. “Today it might be registered sex offenders, so who’s it going to be tomorrow? Drunk drivers? Someone who had an abortion? What’s next? What else is someone going to put on a website and demand payment to have it removed?”
New website attempts to dodge Google’s algorithm
As ValueWalk was compiling information for this story, a new website which appears to be run by Roderick was created. At this early stage in the website’s life, it doesn’t appear to have been flagged by Google’s bots just yet. But ValueWalk Chief Technology Officer Sheeraz Raza says the site will be flagged and penalized, sooner or later.
“There is no way to dodge Google algorithms,” he said. “It’s just a matter of time before Google realize and sites get penalized. It depends on the level of requests Google is receiving, if the content / site is being reported more times, they act soon. If it’s a new site, we can’t actually judge when Google demotes the search rankings of the site. It is totally dependent upon them; there is no general time period.”
Unfortunately for those whose photos have been published by mug shot websites, there’s nothing to stop the creators of these websites from continuing to create new sites. Belluci says Google Inc (NASDAQ:GOOG) is heading in the right direction, but more should be done.
“I definitely think it’s a step in the right direction,” she said. “Personally, I don’t think it goes far enough, We would like to see them be totally excluded from Google searches. That would be the ultimate… The whole reason for our lawsuit would be to take the websites down entirely.”