California Attorney General Xavier Becerra on Thursday filed extortion and money laundering charges against the owners of a website that publishes mugshot photos and charges a fee to remove them.
His office is targeting Mugshots.com, which pulls photos and identifying information about criminal suspects from law enforcement departments around the country. The site charges a "de-publishing fee" to remove someone from its archives, according to Becerra's office.
Becerra said it has frustrated people who were accused of crimes they did not commit.
"This pay-for-removal scheme attempts to profit off of someone else’s humiliation,” Becerra said. "Those who can’t afford to pay into this scheme to have their information removed pay the price when they look for a job, housing, or try to build relationships with others. This is exploitation, plain and simple."
An affidavit filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court describes a number of California residents who paid hundreds of dollars to have their photos removed from the website. They included:
- A Santa Rosa resident who spent a night in jail but was not charged with a crime. He asked the company to take down his photo. It refused. He recorded a phone conversation with someone from the company who cursed at him and said, "We'll never take your calls again. You've been permanently published (expletve, expletive)." The young man believed his inclusion on the website contributed to his inability to find work.
- A Ventura resident who has the same name as his late father. The father spent a night in jail in 1998 and was not charged with a crime. Internet search results confuse the father with the son. Mugshots.com has refused to take down its entry for the dead father.
- A Los Angeles man whose conviction on a rape charge was overturned by a Utah court after he spent nine years in prison. He paid $500 to have his photo removed from Mugshots.com because he believed his inclusion on the website harmed his business.
- A Los Angeles resident who was arrested in a crowded bar in his out-of-state university town. Surveillance video showed he did not commit a crime and charges were dropped. He paid $399 to have his image removed from Mugshots.com because he did not want it to interfere with his after-graduation job search.
Becerra filed charges against Sahar Sarid, Kishore Vidya Bhavnanie, Thomas Keesee and David Usdan. They live in other states, and Becerra's office wants to have them extradited to California. His office said investigators are working with law enforcement in Broward and Palm Beach counties in Florida, and state police in Connecticut and Pennsylvania.
Becerra's office alleged the suspects collected at least $64,000 in removal fees from 175 Californians.
The alleged website operators were difficult to find. State investigators obtained warrants allowing them search records maintained by major internet companies like Google and financial institutions like Bank of America to identify them.
Investigators found the business was registered in the Caribbean island of Nevis, its domain name was registered in Belize and its internet hosting company was based in Australia.
Photos of criminal suspects taken by law enforcement agencies are public records and are generally releasable under state open records laws. Publishing them is not a crime, but Becerra said Mugshots.com broke the law in demanding a fee for their removal.
"There is no value here except to extract payment" from family members of people charged with crimes.
Gov. Jerry Brown in 2014 signed a law by Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, that forbids companies from charging a mugshot removal fee. Other states have passed similar laws, but websites like Mugshots.com continue to operate.
No company has been charged with an offense under Hill's law, according to the Attorney General's Office.
The laws “haven’t worked,” Eumi Lee, a law professor at University of California-Hastings, told the Pew Charitable Trusts in December for a report on laws targeting mugshot websites.
Representatives from Mugshots.com did not immediately respond to a request for comment. David Ferucci, an attorney representing the company in an Illinois lawsuit told Pew in December that the company has a right to publish public records.
"If your claim is that the publication of public records has hurt your reputation, then you’re complaining about the publishing of public records," he said.