bustedmugshots.com owner suing Salt Lake County for jail booking pictures

23 05 2013

The owner of a mug-shot website wants a judge to decide on whether Salt Lake County can invoke copyright to withhold booking photos.

As Mike Gorrell reports, Kyle Prall, owner of bustedmugshots.com, is going to court to overturn the county’s denial of his Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA) request for 1,388 mug shots taken between Jan. 11 and Jan. 27. The county claimed the pictures were classified as protected records under the federal Copyright Act.

The move is an effort by the county to keep the mug shots off websites that publish the pictures, only removing them if the person pictured pays a fee. Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder has also removed the pictures from the jail’s website, requiring those who seek them to file a GRAMA request.

Prall’s site offers to remove pictures for free for those who have been acquitted or not charged, while charging others at least $98 to take down their pictures.

Prall argues that if allowed to stand, the copyright argument could be used to undermine open-government laws.”

Federal copyright law also states that government cannot claim copyright for any documents it creates.

Prall claims the county’s move also flies in the face of GRAMA by allowing government to withhold records based on how they plan to use the documents. GRAMA does not look at the requester’s intent when weighing whether a record should be released.

County Council Chairman Steve DeBry declined to comment, citing the lawsuit.

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New Jersey bill would make mug shots public records

9 05 2013

Just as Utah officials are looking for ways to restrict access to mug shots, New Jersey is going in the opposite direction.

The Daily Record of Parsippany, N.J., reports that a bill is moving through the Garden State’s legislature classifying booking photos as public records. The state’s open-records laws were ambiguous on the point, with some counties denying access and others granting it.

“Releasing pictures of defendants puts a face with a name,” the bill’s sponsor, Assemblyman Ronald S. Dancer, R-Ocean County, told the paper. “These pictures serve important public purposes, including protecting the transparency and integrity of our legal process for victims and offenders, helping to identify criminals on the run and keeping law-abiding citizens informed about the crimes and potential criminals in their communities.”

Dancer’s bill would require mug shots to be released to the public within 24 hours of an arrest when practical.

Local prosecutors had read state law as meaning they could withhold mug shots. They also argued that releasing the photos could possibly taint the jury pool.

But the bill’s supporters say there is no evidence that releasing the photos would sway potential jurors.

“If the prosecutors were right, then we should never release arrest information, because that will taint the jury pool, too,” Walter Luers, an open-government attorney, told the Daily Record. “The fact is any coverage any time the information gets out will taint the jury pool.”

Contrast that to Utah, where several jailers are making it more difficult to download — or even view — mug shots in an attempt to keep them away from mug-shot websites that purportedly charge people to remove the images.

Salt Lake County, for example, no longer posts mug shots online, requiring people to file a request under the Utah Government Records Access and Management Act to get copies. And even that isn’t a guarantee, as the owner of bustedmugshots.com learned.

In that case, the county declared that the mug shots couldn’t be released because that would violate copyright laws.

This year, the Legislature passed — at Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder’s insistence — HB408, which requires people filing GRAMA requests for mug shots to sign a sworn statement that they won’t post the pictures on websites that charge to remove them.

The New Jersey bill is headed to committee.





Salt Lake County declares jailhouse booking photos copyrighted material

11 04 2013

In the latest round in the fight against mug-shot websites, Salt Lake County has copied an idea from the recording industry.

As The Salt Lake Tribune’s Mike Gorrell reports, the Salt Lake County Council unanimously voted to deny a GRAMA request Tuesday from Kyle Prall for almost 1,400 mug shots taken in January. Prall is the owner of the bustedmugshots.com website, which posts booking photos from around the country.

Prall’s site offers to remove mug shots of people who died, had their charges dismissed or were found innocent for free, while others have to pay fees, starting at $98, to remove the picture from the page.

But Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder denied the request, claiming the photos were protected records because they were copyrighted images, even though copyright rules typically do not extend to documents created by the government or for it.

For instance, Dorothea Lange’s iconic “Migrant Mother” photograph is in the public domain because it was created for the federal Farm Security Administration.

But the county council concurred with Winder. “I don’t like what Mr. Prall does,” County Councilman Dave Wilde said. Wilde is described as “a strong advocate of more openness” on the council’s website.

Winder also pushed for HB408, which requires those seeking copies of booking photos to sign a sworn statement promising not to publish the pictures on websites that charge for their removal. Those who violate the law can be charged with lying to police and possibly go to jail for up to six months.

David Reymann, Prall’s attorney, described the decision and its rationale as “absurd.”

“The County Council’s decision was driven by who my client is,” Reymann said. A Salt Lake City media attorney, Reymann said he has never seen copyright invoked as a reason for denying access to a public document.

If the sheriff’s logic were universally applied, Reymann said it could cut off the public’s access to almost any document.

David Cuillier, a journalism professor at the University of Arizona and president-elect of the Society of Professional Journalists, agreed.

“Copyright has no relevance to public records,” Cuillier said. “I think mug shots should be public.”

While mug-shot sites may be looked down on, Cuillier said publishing booking photos is not about embarrassing those arrested. Rather, it ensures that the justice system is transparent.

Cuillier explained that mug shots demonstrate that a person has been arrested, and that they have not been beaten or tortured by police at the time of their arrest. He contrasted that with third-world dictatorships where people would “disappear” with no explanation.

He said both HB408 and Salt Lake County’s actions do not bode well for American-style democracy and civil liberties.

“If Utah officials want a Stalinist society, they’re off to a good start,” Cuillier said.

Reymann said he would encourage his client to appeal, which would mean filing suit in district court. The county does not recognize the State Records Committee’s authority to hear GRAMA appeals.





It’s now the law: No mug shots for those who charge to take them down

2 04 2013

Yesterday, Gov. Gary Herbert signed the bill that forces people who want copies of mugshots to swear that they won’t post it on websites that charge to remove them.

HB408, sponsored by Clearfield Republican Rep. Paul Ray, subjects violators to the same penalties as those who lie to police officers. Ray said he sponsored the bill at the request of Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder, who  was concerned about the proliferation of mug shot magazines and websites.

Ray and Winder said the sites were not fair to people who had been arrested, not charged and were trying to get on with their lives, only to find their booking photos available through a Google search.

“The purpose of these mug shots is to identify criminals,” Winder told the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee during a hearing on the bill, “not bully or harass citizens.”

Some of the sites offer to take down a mug shot, but only after a fee is paid. While slcmugshots.com states it will take down mug shots for free if proof that a charge has been dismissed or the person was acquitted was provided, it also runs ads for a firm that charges for “immediate removal” of mug shots from the Internet.

Winder’s office no longer posts mug shots online, while the Utah County Sheriff’s Office only posts tiny thumbnail shots that cannot be enlarged easily. The Weber County Sheriff’s Office still provides online access to mug shots

But open-government advocates warn that the bill sets a dangerous precedent of government demanding to know what someone intends to do with public information.

“The whole purpose of GRAMA is if a record is public, you should have it and not have to explain why,” Hunt said.





Utah legislator requiring mug-shot requesters to swear they won’t charge to remove pictures from websites

8 03 2013

Rep. Paul Ray doesn’t see HB408 as restricting access to jail booking photos, but how people use the mug shots.
But others see it as a dangerous foray into restricting public records.

Ray, R-Clearfield, is sponsoring legislation that would require people requesting mug shots to sign an affidavit swearing they won’t require people to pay to have a mug shot removed from a website or magazine. Ray claimed some of the sites charge between $500-$1,000 to remove the pictures, a move he labeled a “scam.”

“You have somebody, for instance a  husband and wife arrested on a domestic [violence charge]. They book them in, not charge them and end up releasing them,” Ray said. “They’re trying to fix their marriage, and now their mug shots are all over these magazines, and they’re charging them to get it off there.”

One site, slcmugshots.com, runs advertisements for a firm that offers instant removal for $99, a discount from the regular $159 rate. The site also has a disclaimer that photos are not proof of guilt.

Ray said Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder requested the bill. Winder’s office has stopped posting mug shots online, requiring those who want them to instead file requests under Utah’s Government Records Access and Management Act.
“The purpose of these mug shots is to identify criminals,” Winder told the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee Thursday, “not bully or harass citizens.” He said journalists can still file GRAMA requests for mug shots.

The Utah County Sheriff’s Office only posts low-resolution thumbnail pictures of those booked at the Utah County Jail.

Under Ray’s bill, those who charge to have the pictures removed after signing the affidavit would be charged with lying to a police officer, a class B misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail. Ray claims the affidavit would be required for those making bulk requests, but the bill indicates it would be required of those seeking a single shot.

While nobody spoke against the bill at the committee, which voted unanimously to send it to the full House for consideration, open-government advocates see it as setting a dangerous precedent.

Salt Lake media attorney Jeffrey Hunt said it could embolden government agencies to start asking people why they are seeking public records, which could chill records requests.

“The whole purpose of GRAMA is if a record is public, you should have it and not have to explain why,” Hunt said.
Jim Fisher, an associate professor of communication at the University of Utah, said the bill appears to be an attempt to legislate journalistic ethics.

“It’s one of those laws that’s based on morality and not legality,” Fisher said.

Responsible journalists, Fisher said, typically do not run the names of people who have merely been arrested but not charged with a crime. But that is a question of ethics, not law.

Hunt said a better approach to the problem would be to enforce laws relating to extortion or fraud.

The Utah’s Right website does not publish the names of those whose criminal cases have been dismissed or have entered into plea-in-abeyance agreements. The site’s staff will remove the names of those whose criminal records have been expunged by the courts.