Mug shot websites face scrutiny under new Texas law

mugshotIn the age of social media, we delight in sharing our personal lives with others. There is some information, however, we would rather keep secret. A growing number of websites are publishing mug shots, and individuals are finding that their criminal history – regardless of its accuracy – is readily available online and viewable by anyone.

Are Texas Booking Photos Public?

Texas has very open public records laws, but the publication of arrest records and booking photos varies widely depending on the city and county in which the incident occurred.

The city of Houston, for example, releases mug shots only if the suspect was convicted, and requires a written request to the sheriff’s office. The police department of El Paso, on the other hand, publishes recent booking photos, full names, and limited details which are viewable by anyone, regardless of conviction status.

Criminal records (of Class B misdemeanors and above) are available in an online database provided by the Texas Department of Public Safety. Users can create an account and pay a small fee to search these records.

New Websites Make Mug Shots Widely Viewable

While Texan counties and cities have been publishing criminal information online for some time, it used to take a bit of effort to find it. Now, private websites are taking booking photos, names, and details from these government pages and republishing them for mass viewing, regardless of the individual’s guilt or innocence.

Owners of these sites say they are operating under public interest, and claim they only publish records that are already available to the public. They also post a disclaimer stating they are not responsible for the accuracy of the information.

Websites like these pose a major problem for innocent individuals who were booked for a crime but later cleared. Their old mug shot is usually one of the top results when the individual’s name is entered in a web search.

Removing mug shots and names from these websites requires a fee that ranges anywhere from a hundred to over a thousand dollars.

Texas Websites Under Scrutiny

Two major mug shot sites that are owned and operated by Citizens Information Associates LLC are based in Austin, TX. After being sued by individuals in Ohio, Kyle Prall, the company’s chief executive, released a statement on January 8th stating his company had “decided” to stop charging individuals to remove their mug shots as of October 2013.

In reality, the company’s sudden change in heart was likely due to a law that went into effect in Texas in September.

New Law Aims to Protect Texans from Extortion

Texas legislature passed a new law, Senate Bill No. 1289, that requires websites to amend or remove inaccurate criminal information within 45 days of a request. However, the new law applies only to expunged criminal records or those under a nondisclosure agreement.

Under the law, sites can no longer charge a fee to remove, correct, or modify the information. The bill also requires websites to provide a phone number, fax number, or email address at which they can be contacted.

Because the new law applies only to certain conditions, Texans may have to use legal avenues to remove their mug shots from these sites. One option is to seek expunction, meaning that the records will be destroyed. This is available if an individual was arrested but later acquitted of a crime, or if the individual committed a minor crime. Under the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, class C misdemeanors are eligible for expunction.

Individuals convicted of a higher crime but who did not serve jail time may be eligible for a non-disclosure order. Under the new legislation, websites would be required to remove these photos and records as well.

The internet has complicated matters of public record – what some call the exploitation of private information, others call a service for the public good. It is likely that the Texas government will have to pass new legislation as more issues like this arise.