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Mugshot websites: Free speech or extortion?

 

Jaclyn Lardie did what many do when looking for a job: she Googled her name to see what a prospective employer would find. The search results devastated her.

At the top of the page was an old photo from a night she'd rather forget -- a college-era mugshot from an underage drinking bust. Lardie was never convicted and had put the incident behind her. But commercial mugshot websites pounced on her photo and published it online, demanding a fee to remove it.

"I was hugely surprised. My heart sank," Lardie said. "I felt like I was being unfairly painted as a criminal."

With no options, she paid the fee, only to see her mugshot pop up on another site. That's when she realized she couldn't win this battle. Profiting from shame is the business model for mugshot websites.

"I personally believe it's a legalized form of blackmail," said Lardie, whose photo now resides on Mugshots.com under her maiden name. The website charges $399 for removal.

At least seven states agree with her, recently passing laws to restrict websites from profiting off mugshots: Georgia, Illinois, Texas, Utah, Oregon, Colorado and Wyoming. Marc Epstein, a lawyer for Mugshots.com, told Fox News that such laws are unconstitutional and violate his client's First Amendment rights.

"Unpopular speech, unpopular actions are generally protected under the First Amendment, provided they're not illegal in other ways," Epstein said. "It's uncomfortable, perhaps. But it doesn't rise anywhere near the level of extortion. We threaten nobody."

Consumer attorney Brian Kabatek is suing one of the websites, which he accuses of legalized extortion.

"They're putting it out there not for some great public purpose," he said. "They're putting it out there for economic gain. And that's the only reason they're doing this."

Nobody knows that better than Lardie, who said she's certain it has affected her job prospects as a social worker in Washington, D.C. She believes that when a potential employer sees her mugshot, they move on to the next applicant. "There's a huge stigma attached to mugshots," she said.

When told about Lardie's situation, Epstein said, "I feel bad for her, but you know there are ample ways to figure out solutions to this."

Lardie knows the solution, but doesn't want to pay $399 only to see her photo appear again.

"I'm a very hard-working person,” she said. “I'm a caring person. To paint this picture of me, I think, is unfair and unjust."

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