Could Copyright Law Help Prevent Spread of Mugshots Online?

Charlotte Criminal Lawyer Brad Smith answers the question: “If I have an outstanding warrant, what should I do?”


A woman named Julie Cantu recently experienced one of the (many) negative aspects of today’s information age. While out on a first date, the man asked her several normal get-to-know-you questions, but then included an odd one about whether she had experienced any brushes with the law. Julie was perplexed about the question and when she got home Googled herself. She was horrified to discover that there, after her LinkedIn photo, was another, much less flattering one: her mugshot from years before when she was arrested for drunk driving.


handcuffs-Charlotte-Criminal-Lawyer-Lake-Norman-DWI-Attorney-300x226That case had been dropped after the results of the blood alcohol test came back and showed she was well below the legal limit. She had never before or since had any interaction with law enforcement. Despite this, her mugshot was now online for the world, and future suitors, to see. Julie tried to eliminate the mugshot and, in doing so, discovered the near impossibility of scrubbing the internet of unflattering information. She paid hundreds of dollars in takedown request fees to various private mugshot websites. As soon as she would pay one, the mugshot would pop up on other sites, an endless and expensive game of whack-a-mole. Despite the fact she had never been convicted of any crime, her mugshot might continue to linger for years or even decades into the future.


The issue of mugshots being available online at private mugshot collection websites is no small problem. In the U.S., nearly 70 million people have criminal records, meaning this is not something that impacts only a small slice of the population. Many assume that if mugshots or criminal records exist online, it must be because the person has done something seriously wrong. That is far from true. All it takes to get a mugshot is for a person to be arrested. They could be let go almost immediately thereafter, the charges could be dropped, or they could be acquitted. Though there may never be a conviction, the person could find themselves convicted in the court of public opinion, with future romantic partners, landlords, and employers all stumbling across seemingly incriminating information online.


Given the difficulties Julie experienced trying to get the mugshot taken down, does it mean that we should all give up hope? Not at all. The severity of the problem means that individuals should focus their efforts on finding creative solutions. One such idea involves the use of copyright to combat these private mugshot aggregators. How would this work?


First, we should say that the general rule when it comes to photo copyrights is that the copyright holder is the person or agency who took the photo, not as many assume, the person in the photo. Given that, law enforcement agencies would often be seen as the copyright holder of mugshots. As copyright holders, law enforcement agencies could then issue a takedown request, something discussed in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) which helps owners of copyrighted materials to protect their assets online. If a site refuses to comply with a takedown request, it faces potentially staggering penalties, including up to $150,000 in fines per photograph.


Though this may seem like an easy and elegant solution to a complicated problem, it is not foolproof. For one thing, many states, like the federal government, may not be legally allowed to hold copyrights. In places where that is the case, law enforcement could sidestep the problem by hiring a private vendor to take all mugshot photographs and then issue DMCA takedown requests. Another issue could be that mugshot websites move their operations offshore, in an attempt to evade U.S. law enforcement agencies. Should that happen, law enforcement could rely on the World Intellectual Property Organization Copyright Treaty, which has been signed by nearly half the countries in the world and which requires enforcement of the same DMCA takedown requests as exist in the U.S. Though slippery private mugshot aggregators could still find ways around enforcement, taking these steps could go a long way to helping many millions of Americans with criminal records.


If you or someone you know has been charged with a crime, please contact the experienced criminal defense attorneys at Arnold & Smith, PLLC. Our attorneys stand at the ready to defend you against state or federal charges. Please contact Arnold & Smith, PLLC today at (704) 370-2828   or find additional resources here.






The criminal defense attorneys at Arnold & Smith, PLLC make it their mission to zealously defend their clients on a wide range of criminal matters at both the state and federal levels. These matters may include any charge from traffic offenses; DWI/DUI; drug charges (from simple possession to possession with intent to distribute and trafficking); gun permit denials; weapons offenses; and property crimes (larceny, breaking and entering, robbery, fraud, embezzlement, white collar offenses); to sexually related offenses (indecent exposure; sexual assault, crimes against nature, removal from sex offender registry); and violent crimes (domestic violence; assault; manslaughter; homicide, murder). Other legal issues that Arnold & Smith, PLLC criminal clients may be facing include restraining orders, restraining order and probation violations, expungements; appeals; and immigration issues related to criminal charges. Our criminal defense attorneys are passionate about ensuring that individuals empower themselves by being informed about their constitutional rights, and stand at the ready to fight in the defense of those facing criminal charges.





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