Many people ask us if there is a legal basis to get their mugshots removed from websites that make money posting mugshots. Although, it’s unlikely that we could directly help at New Media Rights, we can provide some guidance.
Unfortunately, the laws surrounding third party use of mugshots online are unclear at best. In California (and assumedly the rest of the U.S.), there are no statutes that say directly when mugshots can or can’t be posted by for-profit websites. There are also no rules about when (or if) a website is ever required to remove them.
There are many reasons why these websites are allowed to exist and can continue posting mugshots without facing lawsuits.
Federal mugshots are public domain (meaning they're freely copyable by anyone). Generally, Federal mugshots are also part of the public record which means they are freely accessible to the public.
Specific states have their own rules about mugshots, but generally state mugshots are as freely accessible and copyable as Federal mugshots. In California specifically, it is generally accepted that mugshots are public domain materials in the public record, so this means that anyone can use them for any legal purpose without your permission.
That said, even though there are reasons why these sites can do what they do, there are still several routes you can take to get your mugshot removed. Your first step should be contacting the website and asking them to take the photo down. This guide assumes that you have already tried to contact the site that posted your mugshot, and they have not contacted you back.
Option one: mugshot removal sites
In your research, you’ve probably noticed many websites offering to remove your mugshot from the Internet for a fee.
These “removal websites” claim to go through a complex and painstaking process to get your photo removed. In reality, some of these removal sites actually work directly with the sites that post the mugshots. Taking your mugshot down using one of these removal services may be as simple as one click. They also charge a high price for this service, usually in the ball-park of $400-$500.
So even if you do get your mugshot taken down by these services, you should know that some of the money you pay to these sites may go straight into mugshot posting website’s pockets. Sometimes, these removal websites are in-cahoots with the sites that post the mugshots. You can read more about this here
Despite how shady it seems that some of these removal services work in cahoots with the posting companies, their business model is (from our research) legitimate and legal.
These websites are probably your best bet for getting your mugshot actually removed. While the price might seem high, the affiliation some of these websites have with the mugshot posting sites assures your mugshot will be removed.
A small number of sites (such as the removal sites associated with mugshots.com) require that your case be “concluded” in order to have your mugshot removed. This can include, but is not limited to having your charge expunged, receiving a verdict of not guilty, having your charge dismissed or your adjudication withheld. If you’re mugshot is on mugshots.com, find a full list of qualifications here
. However, these qualifications are generally easy to meet and in most cases, unnecessary.
Option two: expungement
If you aren’t willing to pay the high fee of a removal site or do not want to deal with the people who run those removal sites, then expungement is another option. Generally, sites that posts mugshots will remove your mugshot if you have gotten your conviction expunged and you present them via email with proof of your expungement. This isn’t due to any law requiring them to, it’s simply a business practice of many of these sites. Therefore, if you get your conviction expunged, you should start contacting the sites again to let them know that this occured.
Expungment means that you’ve filed to have your prior criminal conviction sealed. This makes the records unavailable through the state or Federal repositories.
Getting your record expunged does not guarantee that your mugshot will be removed from a website. BUT, sending these websites proof that your record has been expunged increases the likelihood that a site will remove your mugshot, especially if the site lists expungement as one of its qualifications for removal.
After you have had your record expunged, you should contact the website and they will likely ask for a copy of your Order of Expunction. Note that expungement of your conviction (if you’re eligible) does have a variety of other benefits that we don’t discuss here.
Also keep in mind, that expungement is a potentially time-consuming process that may have court fees associated with it. You may end up getting your mug shot taken down more quickly and with less expense using one of the removal websites described in option one.
Option three: hiring a private lawyer
You can also hire a lawyer to pressure the website into taking your mugshot down. This lawyer will probably send a “demand letter” to the mugshot site pressuring to take the site down. The letter will threaten that a lawsuit will be filed if the website does not take the mugshot down. The threat of an expensive and time consuming lawsuit will probably make the website owner decide to take your mugshot down – even if he or she has the legal right to post it online.
If you are able to find a lawyer who is able to contact them for free or for a price much lower than what the removal services are charging, then it may be worth hiring that person to do it. Typically, these sites will take down your mugshot if they see a threat from a lawyer, even if the lawyer is "blowing hot air" at them.
Writing this type of demand letter is something that you could potentially do yourself, but since these websites probably get dozens of emails per day from upset individuals threatening to sue, it’s likely that a lawyer sending this kind of letter will be taken more seriously and acted upon by the website.
You should understand though, that the cost of hiring a lawyer may be more than the cost of getting your mugshot removed by one of the removal services discussed in option one.
Also, with a hiring a lawyer, there is no guarantee that the mugshot will be taken down. Working with one of the removal services in option one, there can sometimes be guarantees that your mugshot will be taken down.
Finally, there is a possibility that you could pay your lawyer to send this letter, and the mugshot website will ignore the threat. If you did decide to take a lawsuit to court, the law would not be in your favor (at least in California). In California, many of your potential legal claims like harassment or invasion of privacy would most likely not be successful.
To date, there is no record in California of anyone successfully filing a civil suit against a website for refusing to remove a mugshot posted online.
All that said, if you feel uncomfortable using a removal website or think hiring a lawyer is necessary, there are many lawyers who advertise mugshot removal services online. However, at this time we cannot act as your attorney to get your mugshot taken down.